In the wake of the Texas elementary school tragedy, just 10 days after another massacre at a Buffalo supermarket, while also remembering the Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Sandy Hook shootings, parents and community members have been questioning their districts’ security measures.
Additionally, several incidents have been reported over the last month with students from Nassau and Suffolk school districts making threatening statements toward their schools, either verbally or on social media. Those threats were met with action by each district and law enforcement, resulting in arrests and severe punishment.
Last week, the Patchogue-Medford School District held a virtual security meeting introducing their new head of security and answering parents’ questions.
The new head of security, John Ahern, is a retired New York City police officer and the former director of security for a Nassau County school district. Since his hiring, he said, he has been visiting all the buildings and taking a look at their safety protocols and making notes for possible improvements, while also establishing relationships with local law enforcement.
“The systems in place are very good. This is a layered approached; not one single thing is going to prevent anything from happening,” he said of his initial review of the district’s plan. “My main focus is planning and training and a good relationship with the 5th and 6th precincts.”
According to superintendent of schools Dr. Donna Jones, the district is doing everything they can to ensure the safety of all their students, both during school hours and beyond. She also noted that she, too, is a parent and grandmother who understands the high emotions.
She also took a moment to describe the district’s code of conduct and made mention that if a student presents a disruption to the school days, they are entitled to a severe consequence: at minimum a five-day suspension and at maximum expulsion from the district. Students are also not permitted access to the school during any investigation. Jones also stated that she conducts her own hearings to review all information, testimonies, and facts when incidents do occur.
Additionally, the district she said regularly reviews all their exits, alarm systems, and also has various panic systems in place, all connected to the local police department. At each building, there are greeters and security guards overseeing all access through the main entrances. If granted access, visitors are escorted by the person who they are expected to meet with and accompanied at all times in the building.
“We take security very seriously,” she said.
She also suggested parents help maintain the safety of all students by reporting anything they might overhear at any point.
“We need to be vigilant,” she added. “We need you to report anything you overhear, if the conversation sounds dark or a student says something to your child that you think is a little off.”
The issue of open windows was also brought up; however, according to Jones, implementation of central air district-wide would cost upwards of $50 million and would take years to implement going through the New York State capital improvement projects. To help that concern, she said, security will continue regular parameter checks.
Lastly, the district hopes to continue to promote legislation to stop voting polls from being conducted in schools. Jones said their intentions are to allow other sites like fire departments to host voting.
Pat-Med parent of three, Suzanne Berenz, recently organized a social media petition with just under 300 signatures to have a trained armed guard on school property.
“I started the petition in an effort to try to minimize the response time to our school from the proper authorities, should any of our schools be faced with an armed threat,” she said, explaining that she is a concerned mom. “In the last four years, we saw improvements implemented in the PMSD building security by installing scanners and double door entries to every school. However, I don’t believe the district has a plan to minimize the internal threat that our schools face daily.”
In response, she started the petition in hopes to start a conversation with the community about the ideas they have, the current challenges they are facing with the school district, and how they can support the board of education and school administration in making the schools safer.
Through comments about the petition, she said, also came concerns about additional mental health support and additional building safety concerns. In order to address these concerns in an orderly manner, she also created three Facebook groups that would tackle the following initiatives: mental health, building security and building safety. About 500 community members have already joined one or all of these groups.
“My goal is to get the attention of the BOE and the school administration to bring awareness about what is working and what isn’t working,” she said. “Parents of children in the district are continuing to have real struggles with no resolution.”
The next BOE meeting is scheduled for June 27 at 7:30 p.m. at Saxton Middle School.
Neighboring districts maintain measures
WILLIAM FLOYD SCHOOLS
Though the district declined to get into specifics for precautionary reasons, the school superintendent Kevin M. Coster released the following information:
The district plans to continue to be “hypervigilant” when it comes to school safety and security. William Floyd is tasked with protecting nearly 9,000 students as well as 1,500 employees.
“Students cannot thrive and our faculty and staff cannot be effective if they do not feel safe,” Coster wrote in a letter to the district. “I wanted to take this opportunity to reassure our school community that our district is doing all that we can to ensure the safety of our students and staff.
Recently, the district has made investments in expanding their security force as one of the largest districts across Long Island, he said. He also promised constant communication with the SCPD, the school resource officer and the COPE unit.
The district holds regular lockdown drills, both announced and unannounced, in preparation for an emergency situation. Additionally, the buildings are always in lockout—meaning the schools are locked from the inside—with strict visitor procedures. Visitors can only enter through one entryway with two sets of doors in a vestibule.
Additionally, the district periodically hosts the Suffolk Sheriff’s Office for in-school presentations and security assessments, as well as officials from the Department of Homeland Security to review their plans and procedures. This, Coster said, helps identify potential weaknesses in their security plan.
According to the William Floyd School District, “Students are encouraged to think about the potential consequences of making such statements, whether as a joke or to frighten others. Making any type of threat, whether online or in person, is no joking matter; this behavior will absolutely result in severe consequences, which will have a negative impact on that person’s future.”
He also requests the community be vigilant as well, and if they see something to say something. There is a confidential tip hotline available at 631-874-1200 where anyone can leave an anonymous message at any time.
SOUTH COUNTRY SCHOOLS
According to Nelson C. Briggs, assistant superintendent for personnel and general administration, who is also tasked with security, the district updates annually districtwide and individual building emergency response plans to New York State. The plan is then reviewed by the district health and safety committee and approved by the board of education at their annual reorganization meeting in July. Those plans are then shared with state and local police, fire departments and ambulance companies.
The district also employs security called responders in each building and for extracurricular activities. All responders are licensed by the state and some, but not all, are retired or off-duty law enforcement, while others are community members who are privy to issues in the community that arise and may spill over into the schools.
“This is helpful in an effort to be proactive in some but not all situations,” he said.
The number of responders varies from building to building, depending on the size of the building, enrollment in the building and availability. Briggs did not wish to comment on whether they are armed, as he felt it should not be public information.
Additionally, each building has vestibules installed where there is one entrance into the building to a holding/waiting area. Visitors are checked in and upon clearance, the visitor is given access through a second set of doors to then be met or escorted to their appointment. All buildings are keyless with only electronic access.
The district also uses a program called Scholar Chip to check in all visitors, students, faculty and staff. Security cameras are located throughout the entire school district and there is a districtwide communication system currently shielded for an upgrade.
As for drills, he added, they are required to be conducted by New York State and consist of mandated evacuation, lockdown and lockout drills conducted at various times throughout the entire school year. n
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