School districts across Long Island have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to strengthen security -- especially at the elementary level -- in the year since a gunman killed 20 students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Steps taken include installation of security cameras, signing on with agencies that monitor buildings, hiring better-trained security guards, reviewing and modifying district security policies, and revamping visitor restrictions.
Before the horrific Sandy Hook shootings, Amityville Superintendent John Williams noted, the district's security focused on its secondary school buildings.
"You never know where these things are going to break out or unexpectedly happen," Williams said. "I think for the most part in the past, the issues that we saw that were headliners were in secondary schools, until Sandy Hook. And, unfortunately now, no one is exempt."
The district has spent about $250,000 installing security cameras and buzzer entry systems at its three elementary schools during the past year. A series of cameras can monitor activity throughout the school buildings and can be viewed from a central location -- for example, on a laptop in the superintendent's office.
Stepped-up school security on the Island and statewide goes back to 2001, with the advent of a sweeping package of safety laws known as Project SAVE. The law was enacted after the 1999 murders of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado by two of the school's seniors.
Project SAVE required schools to develop response plans to shootings and other crises, evacuation routes, emergency parent notification systems and closer coordination with police. Schools formerly open to visitors began locking their doors and requiring parents and others to ring buzzers for entrance.
After gunman Adam Lanza blasted his way into the locked front entrance of Sandy Hook Elementary School last Dec. 14, state education officials issued a directive that districts review security procedures.
The Board of Regents re-established the NYS Safe Schools Task Force, with representatives from the State Police and other law enforcement agencies, school administrators, parents, and health and mental health service providers. The task force has four work groups to consider such issues as district infrastructure, safety reporting and any needed legislation or regulations.
The task force plans to hold a February forum with students to hear their perspectives on school safety, state Department of Education spokesman Jonathan Burman said Wednesday.
Ahead of that, a Jan. 9 webinar on school safety is scheduled, with participants from the Education Department, governor's office, State Police, state Department of Homeland Security and Division of Criminal Justice Services.
"The webinar, which we are encouraging school personnel and first responders to watch, will focus on training and review of school safety plans," Burman said.
Some experts have noted that the violence in Newtown was so random and occurred so rapidly that almost any security measures could have been defeated: The heavily armed Lanza, 20, fired more than 150 rounds from a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle in less than 10 minutes before shooting and killing himself.
That observation, in part, supported calls for increasing both the number and experience level of on-the-ground security personnel at schools, and wiring districts with more sophisticated technology for alerting first responders.
The Syosset district decided to hire more and better-trained security guards and station them at each of the district's 10 schools. Before Sandy Hook, a guard had been assigned to the high school, superintendent Ronald Friedman said.
In addition, Syosset installed about $35,000 worth of programmable stand-alone keypad exit devices or swipe-card units on all schools' entry and exit doors, and about $250,000 worth of locking mechanisms on classroom doors. All of the installation and keys were cut in-house by the district's Maintenance Department, rather than an outside vendor, to reduce costs.
The door-locking system cannot be duplicated or distributed without the district's written authorization, Friedman said.
In Long Beach, a move to strengthen the system of allowing visitors to schools was under way before the Sandy Hook shootings, with visitors required to show identification and be photographed for an access badge.
Long Beach Superintendent David Weiss said visitors are much more patient and understanding of the process, an outcome he attributed to that tragedy.
Nassau BOCES, meanwhile, created a security feature that offers a hard-wired connection directly to police, part of its large, private fiber-optic network called Bo-TIE. Ten Nassau districts signed on this year, and another eight have pending agreements to join the specific Bo-TIE feature, said Tom Rogers, the district superintendent of Nassau BOCES.
In the case of a 911 call from a school, the connection enables police to view floor plans and video from inside the school. The system, which was in the works before Sandy Hook, came online this year.
Interest in it from districts has grown, Rogers said. "The real advantage of this system is it could potentially save lives," he said.
In addition, five districts have signed onto a round-the-clock monitoring service of buildings offered by Nassau BOCES, he said. Another five are expected to follow.
Center Moriches Superintendent Russell Stewart said the district now has both interior and exterior security cameras, with the outside cameras sweeping the area outside of school buildings. The district added one full-time security guard, which means that two guards now are stationed at the elementary school and three at the secondary complex.
The district plans to add a second set of doors at the elementary school to create a vestibule, he said.
Closing a loophole
Charles Cardillo, superintendent for Manhasset, said his district only last month addressed a loophole regarding substitute teachers' ability to respond to an emergency.
Before the change, substitutes were not given keys to the classrooms they were overseeing -- and therefore could not lock the doors from the inside, which is the practice in lockdowns and emergencies.
Now, the district requires substitutes to obtain keys in the morning -- they have to turn in their driver's license -- and return them at the end of the school day.
"You are constantly looking to see ways in which you can strengthen your overall security," Cardillo said.
While many schools have taken vital steps to improve security, some have demonstrated only a "knee-jerk reaction" and limited response, said David Antar, president of A+ Technology Solutions and Security Solutions, a surveillance systems company based in Bay Shore that also works with school districts.
Some schools "are doing some minimal things to make things better but they are not looking at the whole solution," he said. "They are not looking at the big picture that they need to be doing."
With Jo Napolitano