LI schools ramp up security safeguards

Joie Tyrrell and Keshia Clukey

Newsday

Jul 26, 2018

This is the summer of stepping up school security.

Syosset school officials are heightening protection by upgrading entryways in the system's 10 buildings. Massapequa’s school board approved the hiring of armed guards in the district. Montauk schools are installing more internal cameras. Sayville improved external cameras and increased security staff hours. And when the 2018-19 year begins in the Harborfields district in Greenlawn, visitors will be required to wear identification badges that include their photo.

With safety concerns reinforced by mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, these are but a few examples of the flurry of changes to facilities and policies taking place in public school districts across Long Island.

The coming school year holds the possibility that the state may add "active shooter" training in schools to long-required lockdowns and fire drills.

Already, officials in districts Islandwide say they have strengthened relationships with law enforcement, and those agencies are conducting training sessions for faculty and staff members on response to active shooter situations.

“The biggest thing that all of the school districts on Long Island are doing is they’re talking about this issue, which is plaguing all of us throughout our country,” Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr. said. “They’re taking necessary steps . . . to keep their staff and students safe.”

Seventeen people were killed and 17 others injured in the Feb. 14 shooting at the Florida high school, sparking outcry and demonstrations nationwide, with thousands of students participating in planned walkouts and marching for increased gun control. That fervor continued after the May 18 shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas that left 10 people dead and injured 13.

In each case, the suspected shooter was a teenager who had entered a building he knew well. Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student at the Florida school, is charged with multiple counts of premeditated murder and attempted murder. Texas student Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, faces capital murder and other charges.

Locally, following the December 2012 killings of children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, many districts ramped up security and were continuing to plan or make upgrades. After Parkland came fresh urgency. In the spring, more than 40 percent of candidates in contested races for school boards on the Island cited security as their top concern, according to information they supplied to Newsday.

In addition to projects already under way, more launched as students and teachers headed into the summer break. These span a broad range, including infrastructure upgrades, designation of a single point of entry at schools, installation of metal detectors, and some measures that districts refused to divulge as a security precaution. In recent months, systems across Nassau and Suffolk counties hosted security forums for parents, residents and students.

Barri Levitt, 17, of Woodbury, speaking to the Syosset School Board last month, said she and other students had talked with one another about the possibility of a shooting, trading opinions on which classroom would be the safest to be in.

“We should be equally safe throughout the building, and we should have enough security guards so we don't have to wonder, 'Should I eat my lunch in the student lobby, or is there a chance that I will not go home today?'" said Levitt, who graduated from Syosset High School in June and has a brother heading into 10th grade there.

At the state level, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in June announced plans to conduct security audits of a sampling of local schools both on the Island and elsewhere in New York, as well as the state Education Department and the New York City Department of Education.

DiNapoli — whose first stint in elective office, at 18, was as a Mineola school board member — said he has “a great concern about the safety of our schools and schoolchildren and staff in light of the continuing shootings that we are seeing on school campuses across the country. We want to make sure we are taking whatever steps need to be taken to anticipate, should there be any such tragedy that happened within New York State.”

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, in a statement to Newsday, said the department seeks to enhance safety in three ways: "by improving the climate in our schools and focusing on students’ social-emotional needs; reviewing the ways in which we use and report data; and providing resources that enable schools to better secure and harden their facilities."