LI schools step up security after Newtown shootings

Joseph Townsend, head of security for Center Moriches Joseph Townsend, head of security for Center Moriches middle and high schools, patrols a hallway in the high school. (Jan. 18, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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Long Island schools are moving to boost security after the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings, from installing video surveillance systems to hiring more security guards and sharply restricting visitors' entry to buildings.

Herricks is hiring security staff at elementary schools. Port Washington school officials are considering a swipe-card access system for staff at all schools. South Huntington schools will install "panic buttons" that will allow staff at the front door to signal an emergency to designated locations, such as the principal's office. Amagansett schools may place privacy film on first-floor windows and classroom doors.

Smithtown sped up installation of video cameras on school property after a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six school staffers in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.

"The goal, obviously, is to do the very best we can with our resources to protect children," Smithtown Superintendent Anthony Annunziato said.

Some schools also are planning to increase the number of emergency drills for students and staff.

The state Education Department, too, is tightening school security requirements. The Board of Regents, in a statewide directive last week, told districts it will review safety-plan requirements and "over the next few months, the department will share plans to improve our collective efforts to keep our schools and students safe."

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The department told schools to post district-level safety plans on school websites by Tuesday.

The actions come as tougher gun-control measures are put in place at the national and state levels, a direct result of the mass shooting that shocked the nation and put educators, parents and students on edge.

Last week alone, police were called to at least four schools in Nassau County because of threats, with buildings locked down or students evacuated and parents alerted of a potential emergency. All of the threats were unfounded.

This week, Suffolk County officials will host a school safety seminar where police will give guidance to local educators seeking to enhance security strategies. The seminar, hosted by County Executive Steve Bellone and Police Commissioner Edward Webber, is slated for 9 a.m. Wednesday in the Van Nostrand Theater on Suffolk County Community College's Brentwood campus.

 

Downside to added security

Not everyone endorses ramped-up school security -- and there is a downside, San Francisco Bay-area author Annette Fuentes said. She spent more than a decade investigating the efficacy of such measures in public schools and wrote "Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse."

"Installing the hardware and software of security systems that are more like those used in prisons creates conditions that actually make students less safe," said Fuentes, who grew up in Bellmore and is a Mepham High School graduate.

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"When kids perceive they are in a lockdown environment, that they are being surveilled and controlled, it creates a climate of fear and insecurity," she said.

All New York school districts have long been required to have districtwide safety plans and emergency response plans, by building, under a law passed in 2000.

The law establishing Project SAVE, which stands for Safe Schools Against Violence in Education, was sparked by another mass school shooting -- the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in which 12 students and one teacher were killed. The measure mandates that districts' safety and emergency response plans be reviewed and updated each July.

And many school districts have comprehensive security systems in place. Glen Cove Superintendent Joseph Laria said his district would like to further enhance security, including having a complete professional needs assessment, installing state-of-the-art surveillance cameras and other safety improvements. He estimated the cost at more than $500,000.

"We need the resources and the funding to put meaningful school safety protocols into place," said Laria, who urged local legislators to exempt security costs from the state-imposed tax cap on districts' budget increases.

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State Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Oyster Bay) said he will introduce legislation to exempt such expenses from the cap.

"Keeping our children safe is always our top priority," Marcellino said. "School districts should not have to make a choice between increased security and school programs. Allowing them the financial latitude they need makes good sense."

 

Schools practice safety drills

Districts routinely practice evacuation and lockdown drills, and some schools have increased their frequency. Malverne works with local police to conduct "active shooter" drills, which simulate police looking for a shooter in school buildings and take place when students are not in school, said Spiro C. Colaitis, assistant superintendent for district operations.

"As a result of the Newtown incident, we will sponsor another round of active-shooter training with our police department next month," he said.

Port Jefferson school officials have budgeted $150,000 for security upgrades and are tapping into reserve funds to make improvements sooner than planned.

The district already had put more cameras on school property, and now plans to add security guards, implement a strict visitor policy and upgrade the public address system so emergency announcements can be heard more clearly in more places. In addition, fences are being added in targeted areas of each campus.

"These would have been slowly implemented over a longer period of time," Superintendent Kenneth Bossert said.

Security firms nationwide have pitched emergency-response tactics, such as training administrators to use pepper spray or enrolling in a School Attacker Response Course given by a firearms and combat expert.

 

Districts seek outside help

A+ Technology & Security Solutions, a security firm based in Bay Shore, has heard from a number of local districts in recent weeks, with most seeking help on how to secure vehicles that enter campuses and how to better manage school visitors.

"In the past, they felt they wanted to maintain a freer type of environment . . . but relative to all of the reaction that's occurred, boards of education and private and public schools are now re-evaluating the concept of convenience versus security," said Mike Richez, the company's director of business operations and development.

The Bethpage-based Applied Science Foundation for Homeland Security is working with at least three local school districts, including Franklin Square.

Its Project SAFEguard program includes a basic system of analysis and assessment of current procedures and emergency response drills, as well as an interactive application that creates a detailed depiction of school buildings, floor plans and photos, which are delivered digitally to first responders.

Franklin Square had signed on with the public-private partnership before the Newtown shootings and budgeted about $20,000 for security improvements. "We expect to reallocate more funds as we identify additional areas of improvement," Superintendent Patrick Manley said.

Center Moriches Superintendent Russell Stewart said he fielded a number of calls from concerned parents after the Newtown shootings, with some offering such suggestions as installing bars on classroom windows or fencing school property. The district has been reviewing its security policies and is in the middle of a five-year plan to install exterior and interior video cameras.

After the shootings, the district put up signs on outside doors saying that visitors and staff must use the main entrance. Exterior doors cannot be opened by staff to parents or even other school employees.

But while educators can be vigilant, it may be nearly impossible to stop someone like Newtown gunman Adam Lanza, he said.

"When you have an emotionally disturbed person who has some type of a very serious weapon who wants to do harm, all the measures in the world that we put in don't guarantee that something tragic is not going to happen," Stewart said.

With Lauren R. Harrison

MEASURES LI DISTRICTS HAVE TAKEN AND PROPOSED

 

Highlights of some security measures Long Island school districts have been taking and proposals that may be considered in the future:

AMAGANSETT

Stricter visitor protocol

Classroom doors locked when unoccupied

Future: Install cameras, panic buttons; replace door locks with ones that can lock from inside; phones for recess staff; install privacy film on first-floor windows, classroom doors

BELLMORE-MERRICK

Outside visual equipment to be installed for lockout and lockdown notification

Worked with safety consultants and got additional training

GARDEN CITY

Upgraded electronic-swipe entry locks

Redesigned high school entrances for better security

Currently reviewing security procedures

HERRICKS

Hiring security staff at elementary schools

Greater restrictions on which doors are open and when

MALVERNE

All buildings have single access for entrances/exits, with surveillance at each point

Additional emergency drills

PORT WASHINGTON

Panic buttons in each school

Enhanced walkie-talkie system

Future: Card access control for staff entry; expanded camera system at Paul D. Schreiber High School and other schools; outdoor public address system for high school and middle school

SHELTER ISLAND

One access point into building

Multiple video monitors

Exterior camera

Proposed: Possible additional cameras

WAINSCOTT

Invited security consultant to district to suggest improvements

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