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Official: Center Moriches school district proposal would arm guards

Russell Stewart, superintendent of the Center Moriches school

Russell Stewart, superintendent of the Center Moriches school district, said he has proposed hiring off-duty law enforcement officers to work as armed security guards on district campuses. Credit: John Roca

The superintendent of schools in Center Moriches said Monday he has proposed hiring two armed guards for district campuses — a plan floated before the Valentine’s Day Florida shooting but among several stepped-up safety measures being considered by Long Island educators.

Superintendent Russell Stewart, who oversees the 1,600-student Center Moriches school district, said he first recommended arming security guards at a January board meeting.

The proposal seeks active law enforcement officers, not retired ones, Stewart said. A few current Suffolk County Police Department officers work in security roles for the district, Stewart said.

“When they are working during the day as a police officer with the Suffolk County Police Department, they are armed,” he said.

When they enter school grounds, Stewart said, the off-duty officers are unarmed.

“As a superintendent of schools,” he said, “I believe that’s not the best use of our skilled security personnel.”

A number of school districts in Nassau and Suffolk, some of which have received threats of violence in recent days, posted updates on their websites and sent letters home to parents on potential security changes in response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Police in Florida said Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student at the high school, used an AR-15 he purchased legally to kill 17 students and faculty as classes were ending for the day on Feb. 14.

Several school districts in Nassau and Suffolk vowed to have stronger security measures ready as students resumed classes Monday after last week’s midwinter break.

Newly hired off-duty law enforcement officers were set to be on Miller Place school district campuses Monday, according to an email sent to parents and staff Sunday night. District officials did not comment when asked about reports that at least one of the off-duty cops would be armed.

In the Great Neck school district, interior door locks have been strengthened since the massacre and a meeting is planned with Nassau police to assess potential threats. In Hauppauge, school district officials will be conducting lockdown drills this week.

What remained unclear Monday was whether armed security guards would roam Long Island campus hallways. President Donald Trump made arming school security officers, and even teachers, the centerpieces of his plan to deal with the aftermath of the Florida shootings.

“My sense is there are districts that are considering it,” said Lars Clemensen, superintendent of Hampton Bays schools and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, referring to allowing armed security guards on campus. “But that’s one of many considerations they are assessing for ensuring security. I don’t know of any districts that have actually done it.”

The latest in a series of mass shootings nationwide galvanized high school students and parents nationwide with demands for tightening up gun laws, hardening security on campuses, and meetings with officials on security updates.

Elwood Schools Superintendent Kenneth Bossert held a forum on safety and security in the 2,300-student system on Monday night. He said the district would mull the pros and cons of having armed security on campus in addition to the full-time guards and Suffolk County police officers already attached to the schools.

Bossert said none of those who reached out to him since the Florida shooting have mentioned arming teachers as a security remedy.

“I applaud the Elwood community for not raising that question,” Bossert said at the meeting Monday night, adding that most people he has spoken to are adamantly opposed to the idea. “Not a single resident called to ask when we will be distributing arms to our instructional staff.”

Instead, Bossert said, the district would be installing a “one-button lockdown” system as one of several methods using advanced technology to boost security. Door scanners, additional video cameras and updating the phone system for notification and initiation of lockdowns, are among the security changes, Bossert said.

The question of whether campus security personnel should carry firearms never came up in his frequent talks with fellow school chiefs over the past two weeks, said David Flatley, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.

“My sense of it is that it’s rarely done, if at all,” Flatley said.

During a Monday meeting at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School in Port Jefferson, no one mentioned armed guards as a safety antidote but Superintendent Paul Casciano said administrators were open to hear suggestions about ways to improve security.

Casciano also updated parents, students and faculty at the meeting about a recent threat. He said on Feb. 15 the school district learned of a “potential threat” of violence on campus by a student on social media. It turned out there was “no credible threat of violence to our school,” and the student will not continue to attend district schools, Casciano said.

“Our goal, once again, is the same as yours and that is to keep our students safe and secure,” Casciano at the meeting. “When you send them to school, you have a right to expect that’s what’s going to happen.”

With Zachary R. Dowdy and John Hildebrand

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