After Sandy Hook shooting, LI school districts focus on security, counseling

Districts in Nassau and Suffolk said they were Districts in Nassau and Suffolk said they were renewing their commitment to school safety, and making available grief counseling for students who need it as children on Long Island arrive for their first full day of class since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. (Dec. 17, 2012) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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School officials from Manhasset to Riverhead spent Monday reviewing their security plans, talking with teachers about their roles in emergencies and consulting with law enforcement officials to make improvements in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.

William Johnson, superintendent of the Rockville Centre School District, said he's closely studying the Newtown, Conn., case, particularly how the gunman entered the building.

"We are reviewing very carefully all of the facts associated with the intrusion . . . and will be looking at all of our procedures to see if they need to be modified," Johnson said. "He shot his way into the building. Is there a way for schools to keep that from happening?"

Nancy Carney, superintendent of the Riverhead schools, met with central office staff, building principals, the directors of security, buildings and grounds, guidance and pupil personnel to strengthen safety procedures.

"I contacted the chief of police to request extra patrolling on school grounds to provide comfort and a sense of security for our families," Carney said.

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Ed Vasta, head of the teachers union for the Manhasset schools, said teachers in his district arrived to campus 35 minutes early on Monday morning to talk about how they can best protect students.

And while the notion of protecting a child from gun violence wasn't at the top of their minds when they first entered the field of education, it's now part of their reality, he said.

"Once the world changed and we knew these types of people could come into the school to hurt our kids, you accept this as part of the responsibility," he said. "We are a major player in protecting the lives of our students -- their intellectual lives, their psychological lives and, of course, their safety."

Rob Scavo, president of the Sachem school board, said the district has an outside consultant who visits about every two years to assess safety.

"We have a pretty large security staff that is very visible. We have roaming guards and guards stationed at all of our middle schools -- we have multiple at the high schools."

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He also said the district considers safety suggestions from each campus, rather than dictating from the top.

"Who better to ask than a first- or second-grade teacher about what ideas they have to make the rooms safer?" he said.

Security is so tight, Scavo said, that he was refused entrance last year. He had his driver's license but not his school identification card and wasn't permitted to drop off the contracts he was carrying until the superintendent confirmed his identity.

"Just because I am the president of the school board doesn't mean I have the right to roam the building," he said.

A police officer spent two hours on Monday morning at the Wheatley School in East Williston as administrators reviewed their protocols, principal Sean Feeney said. The officer made some suggestions and the school will consider each of them, although Feeney didn't offer details in an effort to protect security.

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His school conducts lockdown rehearsals three or four times each year, he said, tweaking the procedure after each try.

As part of the procedure, students are told to enter any room they can -- not to travel back to their original classrooms but to get out of open areas as quickly as possible.

All of the classrooms have locks, he said, and the doors have shades to obstruct the view inside. Students are asked to remain silent; noisy classrooms are instructed later to keep quiet.

"The kids are asked to go into a corner away from windows," he said, explaining what happens in each room. "They get together all in one area."

And while student safety is key, "We don't want to turn our schools into prisons," Feeney said. "It's a delicate balance."

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James McKenna, superintendent of the Mattituck-Cutchogue district, said administrators were already considering replacing school locks, which can malfunction. The district is protected by unarmed guards.

"Personally, I can't imagine having an armed person in a building with kids," he said. "But I've spoken with several people today who have countered me and say the time has come."

McKenna, who also heads the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, called the Newtown school a model for safety, yet it still didn't prevent Friday's carnage.

"I'm not sure what you could do to stop what took place up there," he said.

It's been a rough several weeks for administrators at the Oceanside District as officials and families struggle with the aftermath of superstorm Sandy -- one of their schools remains closed because of damage -- and with this most recent tragedy.

"It's certainly been a difficult time, but everybody is getting through it," said superintendent Herb R. Brown, adding that his schools have locked doors and a buzzer system. He didn't foresee major changes to the current plan, he said.

John E. Bierwirth, head of the Herricks schools, said he's "devastated, like everybody else," about the Newtown massacre, and that he will be looking to law enforcement to recommend changes.

"When something like this happens, you go back and review everything you've done," he said.

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