Nassau police have stepped up patrols around schools in Merrick and Bellmore after nine reports so far this month of men approaching or following children as they walked or biked to and from schools.
Authorities said more than one person may be involved, but police suspect one man is responsible for the majority of the occurrences. They are asking residents to be on alert and help them catch him before he commits a crime.
"Clearly, there is a predator among us," County Executive Edward Mangano said at a news conference Monday outside Roland A. Chatterton Elementary School in Merrick, the site of the latest incident.
Monday, police released a drawing of a man whom they said is a "person of interest" in several of the incidents, including one April 10 in Bellmore near Grand Avenue Middle School. He is described as in his late 30s with a mustache and "bushy" hair. Police said he was last seen wearing a dark jacket and dark blue jeans.
This same man, police said, is believed to have approached children in other incidents using a dark green four-door sedan, police said.
Most of the incidents occurred in the afternoon after schools ended, police said.
"The string of stranger incidents has left parents very shaken," Merrick schools Superintendent Dominick Palma said.
The first incident occurred on April 3, police said, when a man driving a white pickup truck approached a 14-year-old girl and her friend as they were walking home from school near Beltagh and Jefferson avenues in Bellmore. Police said the man may have photographed the girls using his cellphone.
The most recent incident occurred Friday. Police said an eighth-grade student was walking to Merrick Avenue Middle School about 7:45 a.m. when a man on foot approached the youngster at the corner of Merrick Avenue and Smith Street, half a block from the elementary school.
"The man spoke to the student in Spanish and attempted to grab him by the arm but failed to make physical contact," Mangano said in a news release.
The student ran away and told school officials what happened. School officials called police.
Even though police said they've increased patrols, particularly before and after school, four mothers from Bellmore said they have not seen evidence of that. "You live in a small town. You expect to have safety here. We haven't seen police presence at Old Mill Road School," said Joann Garcia, 42, a mother of two young children. "I am hoping they'll step it up at this point."
She has had conversations with both her 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son about how to avoid speaking with strangers. To which Garcia's son asked, how he would ever meet new people if he can't talk to strangers.
"It breaks my heart to turn around and say not everybody is good," said Garcia.