School officials look at security in terms of layers of protection. Armed guards are part of some district's plans. NewsdayTV's Shari Einhorn reports.  Credit: Newsday Staff

At least 20 school districts on Long Island have hired or are planning to add armed guards to their campuses, marking the rise of a controversial effort to heighten security at their schools, a Newsday analysis has found.

The armed districts range from some of the Island’s largest, like Smithtown and Half Hollow Hills, with thousands of students, to some of the smallest, such as Montauk and Tuckahoe, with enrollments in the hundreds.

Most of these districts are in Suffolk County. Only two are in Nassau: Massapequa and Farmingdale. In total, they serve more than 70,000 students, of the Island's 420,000 students in 124 school districts. 

At least 17 districts already have armed guards, and two others, Farmingdale and Rocky Point, are planning to add them. The Elwood school board approved adding armed guards last July and charged the administration to secure such services for the 2023-24 school year. 

These numbers show a marked increase in Island districts using armed guards over the past six years. Many districts began considering them after 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018.

“If it was a perfect world, we wouldn't have to worry about this, but we do,” said Bob Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, of school boards’ responsibility to decide safety measures. “It's a sad reality but it is the reality.”

Though the popularity of armed guards at Island schools has risen, the issue remains highly controversial. Educators, parents and students disagree on whether they are effective in preventing school shootings and if resources would be better spent on other priorities, such as boosting mental health programs.

Costs greatly vary, depending on how big a district is and whether it hires a third-party contractor, which tends to be more expensive. In Half Hollow Hills, for example, the estimated cost for hiring a private company is $1 million a year, with a $50 hourly rate. In West Islip, which uses its own employees, the additional cost for 12 armed guards is about $100,000 a year.

More local districts have opted for armed guards since the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022, and in Nashville, Tennessee, in March 2023. Armed guards started working at Half Hollow Hills last month. More may join that list.

Cold Spring Harbor said last October it will “investigate the use of armed guards.” Rocky Point is proposing to hire two armed guards as allocated in the proposed 2024-25 budget, which is subject to voter approval on May 21.

After Parkland, some community members in Kings Park began questioning district officials why their own security guards, many of whom were retired law enforcement officers, couldn’t carry a firearm in school when they could legally do so mostly elsewhere, district Superintendent Timothy T. Eagen said.

By law, even a licensed gun owner is restricted from bringing firearms into schools. But there are exceptions carved out for officers on duty. Some districts have amended their policy to authorize designated guards to be armed.

In spring 2018, Kings Park became one of the early adopters of armed security. The district had some of its own employees serve as armed guards. About half of the district’s 65 security guards are armed this year, some of whom are part time, officials said. The armed guards make $30 per hour.

Eagen said many guards live in Kings Park or surrounding areas and are familiar with the students, teachers and staff.

“They’re trusted members of the community and not some unknown person who's new,” he said.

For Steve Weisse, head of security and one of the armed guards at Kings Park, the job is beyond work. Weisse, a retired NYPD lieutenant, is a “third-generation Kings Parker” whose son is a sixth-grader in the district.

“I take a lot of pride and responsibility for the students,” he said. “I take it very personally and with a lot of care.”

Nearly a third of the districts that have deployed armed guards use their own employees, including Kings Park, West Islip, West Babylon, East Islip and Montauk. The rest have guards from at least six private companies.

Covert Investigations and Security has contracts with Smithtown, Massapequa, Connetquot and Half Hollow Hills. Eastport-South Manor, Tuckahoe and Miller Place use Arrow Security. Center Moriches and East Moriches hired Maximum Security. Other companies used by Island districts include Upfront Security Associates, Wisdom Protective Services and Pro Protection Security.

Newsday compiled the list based on information from interviews with educators, public board meeting documents and records obtained through Freedom of Information Law requests.

When districts use their employees, like in Kings Park, the armed guards interact with students and work inside as well as outside a school building. But for others, the sole purpose for their presence is to respond in the event of a shooting before police arrive.

“Most active shooter circumstances are over within a few minutes, so the quicker someone can actually get into the building in order to neutralize the active shooter, the threat, the safer at the end of the day, the less casualties and the less damage that could occur,” said Paul Defendini, superintendent of Farmingdale schools.

“We're using them for specifically that purpose and that purpose alone,” he said.

Another effect Defendini and others said of armed guards is deterrence.

“If a district has something like this, you might think twice about whether or not you choose to attack that particular place,” he said.

Farmingdale plans to have those guards in place this fall and officials are working on how to implement the plan, Defendini said. He emphasized the guards will be outside school buildings and will not interact with students.

There’s no actual, up-to-date account of how many armed guards there are in schools on Long Island or in New York. School districts must submit safety plans to the state every year, but the state Education Department did not respond to Newsday’s questions as to whether information about armed guards was collected.

Public sentiment toward armed guards is split. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found 49% of U.S. parents say having police officers or armed security stationed in schools would be a very or extremely effective approach for preventing school shootings. In a more recent survey released last month, Pew found 49% of teachers say having police officers or armed security in schools would be highly effective.

One dominant concern from those who are unnerved by such an approach is “the chance for something to go wrong,” even when the guards may be trained law enforcement officers, said Cordelia Anthony, president of Farmingdale Federation of Teachers.

Anthony said teachers in Farmingdale schools have mixed feelings about having armed guards. Most who spoke to her are uncomfortable with it, she said.

“For some people, it's like an added level of safety,” she said. “For others, it really does heighten their, I guess, nervousness about the idea of … an armed shooter or an armed situation where that person would have to respond. It almost triggers the idea of the fact that we are possibly that unsafe sometimes.”

The New York State School Boards Association does not have a position on the matter other than that it should be left to local control, as it currently is.

“We certainly would support a local community who believes that [having armed guards] is going to provide some greater sense of security because let's be honest, no one can learn if you're hungry, no one can learn if you're feeling unsafe,” said Jay Worona, the association’s deputy executive director.

Vecchio and others said many factors could influence a board’s consideration, including the school culture, campus size and layout, how close the buildings are to a busy thoroughfare and what neighboring districts have done.

“Those are very localized, individual decisions based on unique school community needs,” he said.

Research on this subject is limited. One study often cited was conducted by a group of researchers from Hamline University and Metropolitan State University in Minnesota, who examined 133 cases of K-12 school shootings and attempted ones from 1980 through 2019.

An armed guard was on scene in nearly a quarter of those shootings and the researchers found their presence was not associated with “significant reduction in rates of injuries.”

In fact, the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard there, the study’s authors said, noting prior research suggested the presence of a weapon increases aggression and that many school shooters are suicidal, so an armed officer may be an incentive rather than a deterrent.

“Armed guards are just adding more guns,” said Jacob Muscolino, 18, a senior at Half Hollow Hills High School East, pointing to this study. “In any situation where you have to add guns, it is ultimately leading to more violence.”

Muscolino is also doubtful that armed guards stationed outside could traverse through a large high school like his and stop the threat in a matter of minutes.

“What this really does is it creates a false sense of security,” he said.

The study's researchers acknowledged their study is limited in its lack of data on community characteristics and its inability to measure deterred incidents. Those limitations were noted by Half Hollow Hills school board member John Mathew, an emergency physician by training.

“You don't know what you deter,” Mathew said, before he and other board members, except one who abstained, approved the hiring of armed guards in February. “And you can never measure that.”

Shawn Bushway, a professor at the University at Albany and an adjunct senior policy researcher at RAND, said studies on armed security are difficult to do because it's hard to get good data on armed guards and that the dependent variable in this case is quite rare.

From 2000 to 2021, there were 46 active shooter incidents at elementary and secondary schools nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“When you have very rare things, it's almost impossible to prove that [the use of armed guards] works or doesn't work,” Bushway said. 

More research has focused on the use of school resource officers, or SROs, typically police officers provided by local departments. Bushway, who has co-authored studies on SROs, said their deployment in schools reduces serious violence such as fights or physical attacks, but it comes with a cost. Studies have shown that disciplinary actions like suspensions disproportionately affect Black students and students with disabilities.

SROs typically have dual roles: to police the school and to confront outside threats, Bushway said.

If the armed guards are stationed outside the buildings, “You're isolating the second goal only,” he said. “You're not asking them to police the school or kids in the school, you're just saying, ‘Make the place safe from outsiders.’ ”

At least 20 school districts on Long Island have hired or are planning to add armed guards to their campuses, marking the rise of a controversial effort to heighten security at their schools, a Newsday analysis has found.

The armed districts range from some of the Island’s largest, like Smithtown and Half Hollow Hills, with thousands of students, to some of the smallest, such as Montauk and Tuckahoe, with enrollments in the hundreds.

Most of these districts are in Suffolk County. Only two are in Nassau: Massapequa and Farmingdale. In total, they serve more than 70,000 students, of the Island's 420,000 students in 124 school districts. 

At least 17 districts already have armed guards, and two others, Farmingdale and Rocky Point, are planning to add them. The Elwood school board approved adding armed guards last July and charged the administration to secure such services for the 2023-24 school year. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • At least 20 school districts on Long Island have hired or are planning to add armed guards, marking the rise of a controversial effort to increase security at their schools, a Newsday analysis has found.
  • The armed districts range from some of the Island’s largest, like Smithtown and Half Hollow Hills, with thousands of students, to some of the smallest, such as Montauk and Tuckahoe, with enrollments in the hundreds.
  • Educators, parents and students disagree on whether they are effective in preventing school shootings, and if resources would be better spent elsewhere.

These numbers show a marked increase in Island districts using armed guards over the past six years. Many districts began considering them after 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018.

Bob Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Board Association,...

Bob Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Board Association, said it is a "sad reality" that school boards have the responsibility to decide such safety measures. Credit: James Escher

“If it was a perfect world, we wouldn't have to worry about this, but we do,” said Bob Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, of school boards’ responsibility to decide safety measures. “It's a sad reality but it is the reality.”

Though the popularity of armed guards at Island schools has risen, the issue remains highly controversial. Educators, parents and students disagree on whether they are effective in preventing school shootings and if resources would be better spent on other priorities, such as boosting mental health programs.

Costs greatly vary, depending on how big a district is and whether it hires a third-party contractor, which tends to be more expensive. In Half Hollow Hills, for example, the estimated cost for hiring a private company is $1 million a year, with a $50 hourly rate. In West Islip, which uses its own employees, the additional cost for 12 armed guards is about $100,000 a year.

More local districts have opted for armed guards since the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022, and in Nashville, Tennessee, in March 2023. Armed guards started working at Half Hollow Hills last month. More may join that list.

Cold Spring Harbor said last October it will “investigate the use of armed guards.” Rocky Point is proposing to hire two armed guards as allocated in the proposed 2024-25 budget, which is subject to voter approval on May 21.

Kings Park early adopter

After Parkland, some community members in Kings Park began questioning district officials why their own security guards, many of whom were retired law enforcement officers, couldn’t carry a firearm in school when they could legally do so mostly elsewhere, district Superintendent Timothy T. Eagen said.

By law, even a licensed gun owner is restricted from bringing firearms into schools. But there are exceptions carved out for officers on duty. Some districts have amended their policy to authorize designated guards to be armed.

In spring 2018, Kings Park became one of the early adopters of armed security. The district had some of its own employees serve as armed guards. About half of the district’s 65 security guards are armed this year, some of whom are part time, officials said. The armed guards make $30 per hour.

Eagen said many guards live in Kings Park or surrounding areas and are familiar with the students, teachers and staff.

“They’re trusted members of the community and not some unknown person who's new,” he said.

For Steve Weisse, head of security and one of the armed guards at Kings Park, the job is beyond work. Weisse, a retired NYPD lieutenant, is a “third-generation Kings Parker” whose son is a sixth-grader in the district.

“I take a lot of pride and responsibility for the students,” he said. “I take it very personally and with a lot of care.”

Nearly a third of the districts that have deployed armed guards use their own employees, including Kings Park, West Islip, West Babylon, East Islip and Montauk. The rest have guards from at least six private companies.

Covert Investigations and Security has contracts with Smithtown, Massapequa, Connetquot and Half Hollow Hills. Eastport-South Manor, Tuckahoe and Miller Place use Arrow Security. Center Moriches and East Moriches hired Maximum Security. Other companies used by Island districts include Upfront Security Associates, Wisdom Protective Services and Pro Protection Security.

Newsday compiled the list based on information from interviews with educators, public board meeting documents and records obtained through Freedom of Information Law requests.

When districts use their employees, like in Kings Park, the armed guards interact with students and work inside as well as outside a school building. But for others, the sole purpose for their presence is to respond in the event of a shooting before police arrive.

“Most active shooter circumstances are over within a few minutes, so the quicker someone can actually get into the building in order to neutralize the active shooter, the threat, the safer at the end of the day, the less casualties and the less damage that could occur,” said Paul Defendini, superintendent of Farmingdale schools.

“We're using them for specifically that purpose and that purpose alone,” he said.

Another effect Defendini and others said of armed guards is deterrence.

“If a district has something like this, you might think twice about whether or not you choose to attack that particular place,” he said.

Farmingdale plans to have those guards in place this fall and officials are working on how to implement the plan, Defendini said. He emphasized the guards will be outside school buildings and will not interact with students.

Cordelia Anthony, president of Farmingdale Federation of Teachers.

Cordelia Anthony, president of Farmingdale Federation of Teachers. Credit: Howard Schnapp

An evolving debate

There’s no actual, up-to-date account of how many armed guards there are in schools on Long Island or in New York. School districts must submit safety plans to the state every year, but the state Education Department did not respond to Newsday’s questions as to whether information about armed guards was collected.

Public sentiment toward armed guards is split. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found 49% of U.S. parents say having police officers or armed security stationed in schools would be a very or extremely effective approach for preventing school shootings. In a more recent survey released last month, Pew found 49% of teachers say having police officers or armed security in schools would be highly effective.

One dominant concern from those who are unnerved by such an approach is “the chance for something to go wrong,” even when the guards may be trained law enforcement officers, said Cordelia Anthony, president of Farmingdale Federation of Teachers.

Anthony said teachers in Farmingdale schools have mixed feelings about having armed guards. Most who spoke to her are uncomfortable with it, she said.

“For some people, it's like an added level of safety,” she said. “For others, it really does heighten their, I guess, nervousness about the idea of … an armed shooter or an armed situation where that person would have to respond. It almost triggers the idea of the fact that we are possibly that unsafe sometimes.”

The New York State School Boards Association does not have a position on the matter other than that it should be left to local control, as it currently is.

“We certainly would support a local community who believes that [having armed guards] is going to provide some greater sense of security because let's be honest, no one can learn if you're hungry, no one can learn if you're feeling unsafe,” said Jay Worona, the association’s deputy executive director.

Vecchio and others said many factors could influence a board’s consideration, including the school culture, campus size and layout, how close the buildings are to a busy thoroughfare and what neighboring districts have done.

“Those are very localized, individual decisions based on unique school community needs,” he said.

Jacob Muscolino, 18, senior at Half Hollow Hills High School...

Jacob Muscolino, 18, senior at Half Hollow Hills High School East. Credit: Newsday Staff

Research on issue limited

Research on this subject is limited. One study often cited was conducted by a group of researchers from Hamline University and Metropolitan State University in Minnesota, who examined 133 cases of K-12 school shootings and attempted ones from 1980 through 2019.

An armed guard was on scene in nearly a quarter of those shootings and the researchers found their presence was not associated with “significant reduction in rates of injuries.”

In fact, the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard there, the study’s authors said, noting prior research suggested the presence of a weapon increases aggression and that many school shooters are suicidal, so an armed officer may be an incentive rather than a deterrent.

“Armed guards are just adding more guns,” said Jacob Muscolino, 18, a senior at Half Hollow Hills High School East, pointing to this study. “In any situation where you have to add guns, it is ultimately leading to more violence.”

Muscolino is also doubtful that armed guards stationed outside could traverse through a large high school like his and stop the threat in a matter of minutes.

“What this really does is it creates a false sense of security,” he said.

The study's researchers acknowledged their study is limited in its lack of data on community characteristics and its inability to measure deterred incidents. Those limitations were noted by Half Hollow Hills school board member John Mathew, an emergency physician by training.

“You don't know what you deter,” Mathew said, before he and other board members, except one who abstained, approved the hiring of armed guards in February. “And you can never measure that.”

Shawn Bushway, a professor at the University at Albany and an adjunct senior policy researcher at RAND, said studies on armed security are difficult to do because it's hard to get good data on armed guards and that the dependent variable in this case is quite rare.

From 2000 to 2021, there were 46 active shooter incidents at elementary and secondary schools nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“When you have very rare things, it's almost impossible to prove that [the use of armed guards] works or doesn't work,” Bushway said. 

More research has focused on the use of school resource officers, or SROs, typically police officers provided by local departments. Bushway, who has co-authored studies on SROs, said their deployment in schools reduces serious violence such as fights or physical attacks, but it comes with a cost. Studies have shown that disciplinary actions like suspensions disproportionately affect Black students and students with disabilities.

SROs typically have dual roles: to police the school and to confront outside threats, Bushway said.

If the armed guards are stationed outside the buildings, “You're isolating the second goal only,” he said. “You're not asking them to police the school or kids in the school, you're just saying, ‘Make the place safe from outsiders.’ ”

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