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Superintendent Jessica Schmettan

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The Port Jefferson School District boasts an exceptional and historic achievement with one of its own educators. Dr. Tara Sladek-Maharg is the first teacher from the district to be named a Distinguished Teacher of 2022 by the Harvard Club of Long Island. 

According to Dr. Judith Esterquest, chair of the Distinguished Teacher Selection Committee, the award honors middle and high school teachers who have profoundly influenced their students’ lives. “Dedicated teachers like Dr. Sladek-Maharg inspire Long Island students to excel, to become passionate about learning, and to recognize the value of hard work. These teachers devote countless hours to creating better futures for our children,” she said. 

Dr. Sladek-Maharg will be honored at a virtual awards ceremony on April 2, along with seven other teachers from across Long Island. Delivering the keynote will be Harvard Professor of Psychology Fiery Cushman, who studies how people make moral decisions.

Dr. Tara Sladek-Maharg. Photo from PJSD

Affectionately called “Doc” by her students, Dr. Sladek-Maharg has taught social studies and psychology at the middle and high school in Port Jefferson since 2000. Before teaching, she lived in Vienna, Austria, and worked as a Fulbright English teaching assistant. She speaks fluent German and has studied Russian and Mandarin. While Dr. Sladek-Maharg downplays her own accomplishments, directing her pride toward her students, she does describe pride about bringing therapy dogs into the school district, not only to calm stressed students and faculty, but also to offer her AP Psychology students a living model of classical conditioning. 

“Dr. Tara Sladek-Maharg exemplifies an extraordinary educator. She has created a learning environment for students that stimulates individual potential,” said Superintendent of Schools Jessica Schmettan. “Her dedication, enthusiasm and guidance in inspiring and challenging our students extends beyond the classroom and helps transform Port Jefferson students into lifelong learners.”

At the virtual ceremony, the Harvard Club of Long Island will announce the Distinguished Teacher of 2022 who will also receive a scholarship for a “Harvard experience” at the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, MA. The scholarships are funded by contributions from Harvard alumni living on Long Island. 

This year’s Distinguished Teacher Award winners were nominated by current Harvard undergraduates and then selected by Harvard Club of Long Island board members. They teach algebra, biology, chemistry, English, history, language arts, and psychology. 

Dr. Sladek-Maharg is the first teacher from the Port Jefferson School District to be honored by the Harvard Club of Long Island.

The crime scene outside Dunkin' Donuts in the village. Photo from Margot Garant

It was a tragedy, but local officials say all the right protocols were in place which led to the quick arrest of a Port Jefferson Station man in the fatal shooting of 25-year-old David Bliss Jr. of Shirley.

The incident occurred on Wednesday, March 24, at approximately 3:35 p.m., when Bliss was shot in front of 122 Main St. in the village.

According to a Suffolk County Police Department spokesperson, police from the 6th Precinct were on the scene within 2 minutes, 32 seconds after the victim was hit. 

Mayor Margot Garant said the whole incident itself took less than 10 seconds, from the argument between the two men to the duo in the car driving off. 

“Upon learning of the incident, our code enforcement chief and I immediately headed to the scene,” she said. 

But the police were already there, and once the SCPD steps in, they take the reins on any incident. Upon assessment, the police spokesperson said, the detectives on the scene immediately determined that it was a targeted incident.

“Upon arrival at the Port Jefferson shooting scene, police knew the shooter had left the area in a vehicle immediately following the shooting and a lockdown was not necessary,” the police said in a statement to TBR News Media. “Each incident presents specific circumstances that are assessed by responding personnel to determine if a lockdown is warranted and what radius needs to be covered.”

Village trustee Kathianne Snaden said that although some people are curious and are upset over the protocol, the village did everything within their ability to keep their residents and children safe.

“Everybody wants to know why a lockdown didn’t happen, and the last answer is we do not have that authority,” she said. “We confirmed that with our attorney and we don’t have that right.”

Garant reiterated the same, that although people may think the local government has more ability to shut down a village, they do not. 

“As soon as Suffolk is on the scene, it is their game,” she said. “I do not have the authority to put the village in a lockdown situation. Under New York State law, I do not have that authority.”

Thanks to the village’s street cameras, police were able to get a license plate number and began tracking the vehicle which was already headed into Smithtown.

“The police officer on the scene confirmed the community is not in harm’s way,” Garant said. “He said they are tracking the vehicle in Stony Brook, heading to the Smithtown area and this is very much a one-on-one attack.”

And because investigators on the premise knew right away that the shooting was not a threat to the rest of the village, schools were not put on lockdown.

Snaden, who was watching her daughter’s tennis game at the school, got the call from Garant and immediately asked if a lockdown was needed.

“We can’t say it enough — as soon as the call came to me, my first question to the mayor was, ‘Are the kids safe?’” she said. “Margot was standing with Suffolk police who confirmed ‘yes.’”

Snaden, who is also the community liaison between the school district and the village government, began tracking down Port Jefferson Superintendent of Schools Jessica Schmettan who was already aware of the situation and rerouted the buses to avoid Main Street.

“Everybody was fully aware, and the school was already doing whatever protocol they do in these situations,” Snaden said. “Superintendent Schmettan had already, long before, already known about it and was acting on their behalf.”

Schmettan told the mayor that once she heard of the incident and bus reroutes, she communicated with the SCPD and verified that a lockdown was not needed — all within less than 10 minutes of the actual shooting.

Snaden said that upon learning of the incident, students were brought into the building out of an abundance of caution at the discretion of the athletic director and coaches who had kids outside.

“Upon notification of an emergency situation, our district immediately enacts our safety and security plans to help safeguard our schools,” Schmettan said in a statement. 

“These plans have prescribed actions specific to various potential scenarios and are often guided by the unfolding details of the events transpiring. As the safety of our students and staff remain our top priority, we are thankful to our partners in law enforcement and our village officials for their continued partnership with regard to our safety efforts and for their open lines of communication along every step of the way.”

The next day

Garant said that the next day the village had a debriefing and decided to begin using their CodeRED system for situations like this.

Criticisms have been made that the village should have used the system to let residents know what happened, and Garant said normally CodeRED is used for villagewide emergencies, like natural disasters. 

“If we had used CodeRED in this instance, because of the initial information and the lack of information from Suffolk at that point, the CodeRED would have just said that there is police activity on Main Street, please avoid the area, period,” Snaden said. “It wouldn’t have said lockdown.”

She added, again, the village does not have the authority to lockdown. Only the governor or county executive can make those decisions. 

Garant said that the social media hysteria that happened along the way could have caused more harm than good.

“It’s dangerous, because what happened was parents rushed to the school, there could have been a traffic accident, there could have been who knows what,” Snaden added. “The rumors were extremely reckless.”

Some of the rumors claimed that a student from the Port Jefferson School District was the culprit, another was that it was an active drive-by shooter. Both of those claims ended up being false right away, but the threads kept going.

“It didn’t really matter what we did or didn’t do that day,” Garant said. “My job is to keep this community as safe as possible, and not create more chaos or danger to them.”

But Garant said she did have the executive decision to give the community statements on what was going on. 

“This is because of who we are as government officials that we choose to do,” she said. “Because we feel it’s important. We’re not required to have this line of communication with the district.”

Garant added the CodeRED system currently has 4,800 subscribers and, after last week’s event, they will now use it more consistently.

“I think the thing that we learned from this is that we’re going to use our CodeRED and you need to be on our system,” she said. “You can get a text, you can get a voicemail, you can get  an email. And that’s how you’re going to get alerted from us from this point forward.”

Catching the culprit

“The good news is because of their thorough investigation, they caught the shooter within 72 hours,” Garant said. “That’s exceptional.”

Snaden said the cameras that are throughout the village are state-of-the-art devices, which are hooked up to the Suffolk County Real Time Crime Center — the first village within the county do so.

When the code officer was on the scene, a doctor and nurse bystanders were already tending to the victim, as police headed over.

 “There were good people that did help,” she said.

Snaden added that the village has 37 code officers, plus the chief, who monitor the area, and who work alongside the police. Two more hires are planned for this month.

“We have a good working relationship with the SCPD,” she said. “The code officer that was there was the supervisor at the time and secured the scene. He did what you are supposed to do as an officer.”

On March 27, SCPD arrested Joseph Garcia, 19, of 11 Market St., Port Jefferson Station, and charged him with 2nd degree murder. 

He was arraigned on March 28 and pled not guilty. 

The investigation is still ongoing and details about the altercation between the two men have not been released.

The SCPD encourages anyone with information about a crime to report it to 911 or anonymously to Crime Stoppers at 800-220-TIPS (8477).

Superintendent Jessica Schmettan. File photo by Kyle Barr

Port Jefferson Middle School and Earl L. Vandermeulen High School had to go fully remote this week, after parents begged the district to allow their children back in four days a week. 

Up until recently, the district had students come to the high school and middle school twice a week. Parents, concerned about how the lack of in-person learning would have on their children, began asking why the district would not add more days. 

Jae Hartzell, a parent in the district, said she was one of a dozen who voiced their concerns. 

“We really worked, and fought, and emailed, and studied, and provided stats, and really researched to make sure we were fighting for the right and safe thing to do,” she said. 

And their wishes were granted at the latest board of education meeting on Jan. 8, when the board agreed on a vote to let middle and high schoolers back in four days a week. 

But just two days later, on Sunday, Jan. 10, the district sent out a notification that the four days will not happen, and instead, those two groups would have to go remote. 

The notice said that as of that day, there were 26 staff members, including teachers and teaching assistants, who are subject to quarantine due to COVID-19, for a variety of reasons related to their own health, in-school and out of school exposures, and positive family members. 

It continued that after careful examination of the school’s schedules and their available substitute coverage, they determined they do not have the staff to cover the middle and high schools this week. That being said, grades 6-12 will go remote Jan. 12 through Jan. 15, with no change to the Monday, Jan. 11 schedule as this is an asynchronous remote day in the district’s hybrid schedule.

The notice did not affect the elementary school, which will still be open for in-person learning, and staff coverage for the district’s 8:1:1 special education students have not been affected, as the in-person class schedules for these students remains the same.

“As a parent, you see your child go from super happy and over the moon to be able to go back to school, and then flattened a bit with that disappointment,” Hartzell said. “We all have to understand this is very complex and complicated and we don’t have the information, but it’s disheartening.”

Port Jefferson School District Superintendent Jessica Schmettan said the district understands this is difficult news to hear after the highly anticipated return to four days per week of in-person instruction.

“This determination is only for the remainder of this week and we expect to begin this next phase of our reopening plan on Tuesday, Jan. 19 – as long as circumstances permit – when we look forward to having all of our students back in our classrooms,” she said.

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Amy Laverty, the previous Pre-K through 8 assistant principal, was named the new principal of the Enda Louise Spear Elementary School Dec. 8. Photo from PJSD

At its Dec. 8 meeting, the Port Jefferson school board voted to appoint a new elementary school principal to replace Thomas Meehan, who is set to retire Dec. 31

The board unanimously voted to appoint Amy Laverty as the new principal of Edna Louise Spear Elementary School on a probationary basis effective Jan. 1, 2021 with an annual salary of $138,500. Laverty previously held the position of the assistant principal for Pre-K through eighth grade.

Laverty joined Port Jeff in 2019 from the Northport-East Northport School District. Before that, she was a classroom teacher at various elementary levels in the district’s Ocean Avenue Elementary School. She has a master’s of arts in liberal studies from Stony Brook University and a bachelor’s of arts in child study and students with disabilities from St. Joseph’s College. She holds initial certification in school building leadership and professional certifications in early childhood/childhood and students with disabilities. She also received an educational leadership advanced certificate from LIU Post.

“In addition to her strong instructional and curricular background, Ms. Laverty clearly articulated her vision for the building, outlining specific goals she would like to accomplish,” Superintendent Jessica Schmettan said.

At a previous board meeting, trustees honored Meehan for his decade of service to the elementary school. Schmettan spoke highly of Meehan’s decade of service at the helm of the elementary school, citing his skills and initiatives such as instituting the school’s Grade 5 Safety Patrol Leadership Program and collaborating with the Port Jefferson Fire Department in the annual 9/11 ceremony. She also spoke of his relationships with both the Royal Educational Foundation and the PTA over the years resulting in the raised garden beds for science and nutrition lessons, a gaga ball pit for physical education and socialization, and a book vending machine which encourages reading for education and fun.

Meehan is affectionately known as “Mr. Port Jefferson.” He is a graduate of the Port Jefferson School District, as well as a member of the fire department, is a part of the beach community and regularly hikes around the village. But most importantly, he is lauded for his commitment to the students of the district. 

“It’s always about our students,” Schmettan said. “He knows all of our elementary children and their families by name.”

She added that he isn’t afraid to jump into the gaga ball pit, shoot a few hoops, examine a science project, join in on a music lesson, direct a bus, investigate a furnace or read a class a book. 

“He truly is a master of all talents,” she said.

Schmettan and the board presented him with a gift and applauded his leadership
and service.

“It was an honor for me to be principal,” Meehan said. “It meant so much to me and my family.”

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Superintendent Jessica Schmettan. File photo by Kyle Barr

With this school year coming to an end, the Port Jefferson School District is looking back on the last few months of school to figure out what did and what didn’t work regarding distance learning.

Though Superintendent Jessica Schmettan said she would rather call the rush to create a learning apparatus for students at home an “emergency remote instruction,” she added, “We did the best we could considering the circumstances.”

It was a case, she said, of creating something from nothing. Now with some experience under its belt, the district has commissioned a committee to help establish its reopening agenda. The nearly 50 members of the task force are broken up into four subcommittees, Schmettan said, including facilities, curriculum and instructional, social and emotional wellbeing, and personnel. Included on the committees are representatives from the teachers union, clerical union, facilities union and members of parent-teacher groups like the Port Jefferson Parent Teacher Association, Parent Teacher Student Assocation and Special Education Parent Teacher Association. 

Last week, these local PTA groups released an open letter, which was published in the July 2 issue of the Port Times Record, saying that instruction was uneven across different teachers, where some held live sessions, others would use prerecorded sessions while others only posted content to Google Classroom.

The letter suggested a number of items the district could improve on, including live or prerecorded teaching time that matches what students would receive on a normal school day, and clear schedules for students to follow, including time for outdoor activities.

Schmettan said much of that is likely to be discussed within the committees. There were differences between staff members in how they were able to adapt, she said. Most teachers were using Google Classroom for schoolwork along with Google Meet and Screencastify for hosting teaching broadcasts, though some did use other online subscriptions to have students complete coursework. 

Schmettan said the biggest lesson the district has learned is that not all students are going to respond the same way to the same instruction. Likely, she said, the district will set minimum expectations for both teachers and students as far as what each will be required to do in that distance learning plan. What that will look like will be part of the committees’ discussions.

“We have to differentiate for all the learners involved, and we have to account for their individual needs on a much greater scale than we were able to do the first round,” she said.

Though practically all districts prefer in-person classrooms to distance learning, the Port Jeff superintendent said the thing students most lack from online education is the social aspect of school. The committee will have to consider how that might be amended, as well as how better to facilitate the physical component of education if students are not around for phys-ed teachers guidance.

“When you’re in a distance learning model, you’re isolated, you may not have that same interaction you have within a classroom, or you may not have that ability to discuss concepts with your age-appropriate peers,” Schmettan said. “So much is lost from not having that social impact and play, it’s a detriment to a lot of our students.”

All this still depends on what state guidance will be, whether schools will have to take a hybrid model of in-person/remote education at different parts of the year, if schools will remain virtual or go back to a full in-person learning experience. The problem is, there are different levels of government potentially giving contradictory advice. 

At the state level, there is already the NYS Education Department’s reopening task force, as well as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) reimagine education council. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released school guidance for how best to distance children. This week Betsy DeVos, secretary of education, has effectively demanded that all schools reopen and become “fully operational” on a conference call with governors, despite southern and western states seeing a massive surge in COVID-19 cases in the past month.

“We have to plan for three different scenarios and hope that we can have [the students] back in the classroom full time,” Schmettan said.