LI schools see heightened sensitivity to threats

Police respond to Hewlett High School for a Police respond to Hewlett High School for a incident with a student. (Jan. 18, 2013) Photo Credit: Joel Cairo

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Long Island school communities have a heightened sensitivity to on-campus violence in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, administrators said Friday, at the end of a week that saw perceived threats at five campuses.

Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said more people -- including students and staff -- are reporting suspicious incidents more often.

"It's been such a prominent topic over the last month or so and I really think the public has become more cognizant of real threats," he said.

Hewlett High School was placed on lockdown Friday morning because of an unfounded report of a student with a gun, and police were called to two Baldwin campuses on the same day because of written threats about a shooting.

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Seaford Middle School was evacuated for three hours Wednesday after a threat; a toy gun led to a four-hour lockdown at Elmont High School on Tuesday.

James McKenna, superintendent of the Mattituck-Cutchogue district, said many similar incidents might not have been as widely reported before the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in which 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down Dec. 14.

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Security is now at the top of each school's agenda, said McKenna, president of Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. And the community is watching.

"Our parents in many of our districts want to know how we are handling these situations," he said. "The best way to do that is to maybe take a higher profile action -- the idea of looking at everything with a different lens."

Email, Listservs and mass text-messaging make it easier to alert parents to threats. Years ago this information "would have been sent home in backpacks," said John E. Bierwirth, superintendent of the Herricks district.

Bierwirth said many of his students have cellphones and alert their parents in real time if they're being evacuated, for example. It's easier to provide parents with the right information first "than deal with 100 suppositions" later, he said.

Herb Brown, immediate past president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, said no universal plan exists on how to deal with threats, and administrators handle each case differently.

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Brown, superintendent of the Oceanside district, said an eighth-grader there was recently suspended for two weeks after administrators learned he posted a picture of himself holding a gun on Facebook.

The child didn't mention the gun in school, but the photo was discovered by students shortly after the Sandy Hook killings and the picture alarmed them. School officials argued that he was disrupting the educational process. He had initially refused to take the image down but has since removed it.

"Different people might have reacted differently to that," Brown said. "Someone might have suspended him for the rest of the year. Some not at all. There is not a book we all follow for every incident because they are all a little different."

Brown said he didn't tell parents about the incident because students were not in danger. But, he said, the district is more likely to reach out to them in general about such cases after the Newtown tragedy.

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