Long Island's two police commissioners joined Seaford Rep. Peter King and gun-safety advocates Monday night to talk about making schools safer and touched on topics including arming teachers.
Steve Israel, a former Democratic congressman from Huntington, moderated the 90-minute event at Newsday, sponsored by the newspaper and the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Panelists included Paul Guttenberg of Commack, whose 14-year-old niece, Jaime, was among the 17 students and staff killed during the mass shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Kyleanne Hunter, vice president for programs at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said her department investigated more than 300 threats of campus violence in 2018. Every threat is investigated, Hart said, including those posted on social media or a student boasting to friends.
"In Suffolk County, we put together some real strong strategies to address school violence," she said at the Newsday Live event.
Hart said that her wish list to improve school safety would be to add more School Resource Officers — also known as SROs. These officers are specially trained and assigned to school buildings where they get to know students and staff. The department currently has 19.
"They are a tremendous resource for us," she said. "They are identifying children at-risk and mentoring students and they are really on the front lines."
Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said the odds are good that students are safe at school but emphasized that his department remains focused on keeping campuses secure. He said the department has spent the past year training and working with local school leaders and "every single one of them is on board with school safety."
Ryder said each of Nassau's 56 school districts have the RAVE app — a smartphone system that, with the push of a button, allows teachers and administrators to call 911 and simultaneously alert other authorities about an active-shooter situation or other emergency. It also provides up-to-date information that first responders may need. Hart said about 95 percent of Suffolk schools have the same system.
Since the Florida shooting, some Long Island schools have added armed guards to their security plans. That move has generated controversy, with some school boards and communities endorsing it and others vehemently opposed. Massapequa, Hauppauge and Miller Place are among the districts that have approved plans to add armed security guards to their campuses. Last month, West Babylon did, too.
Nationally, there has been discussion about arming teachers. Hunter, a former officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, said a gun in the classroom "is antithetical to the mindset of a nurturing, learning environment."
Guttenberg also said armed guards are not the solution.
"More guns in schools will lead to more accidental shootings," he said.
He asked King to continue to work with his fellow Republicans for common-sense legislation.
"We are not talking about taking people's Second Amendment rights away; we are talking about keeping kids safe," Guttenberg said.
King is a sponsor of H.R. 8 Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, which would require a background check for gun purchases at gun shows and online, and recently passed the House. He was not optimistic that such measures could gain bipartisan support.
"Too many people are dug in on both sides," he said.
Parent Eugenia Woods, 43, of Ridge, said she is concerned about a constant police presence in school.
"As an African-American mother, you speak about safety in the schools, but our children don’t feel safe because we are already overpoliced in our neighborhoods and now when our children go to school," she said.
Hart said these officers become "part of the community" and are not there to appear threatening to students.
Prior to Monday evening’s event, a group gathered just off Pinelawn Road, outside Newsday's building, to protest what they called King's lack of support for gun reform and failure to stand up to the gun lobby.
The demonstrators included Linda Beigel Schulman of Dix Hills, who is the mother of Scott Beigel, a Long Island native and geography teacher killed in the Parkland shootings. Others in the group were from the March for Our Lives Northeast Regional chapter and students from local high schools.