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School threat reports in Nassau, Suffolk surge

Chris Donarummo, assistant to the superintendent at the

Chris Donarummo, assistant to the superintendent at the Plainview-Old Bethpage schools, gives a presentation on school safety and security on March 26. Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

The number of threats against Long Island schools reported to police have surged this year, most notably since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, officials say.

Police in Nassau and Suffolk counties said they have responded to 275 threat reports at local schools so far in 2018 — and at least 150 since the Feb. 14 shooting at the school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed. Each has sparked a police investigation and many have prompted educators to place schools on lockdown and send alerts to parents and residents. The majority have not resulted in charges, and some have proved to be unfounded.

Law enforcement officials attribute the jump to heightened awareness of potential threats since the Parkland shooting. The investigated incidents have included comments overheard at school and threats on social media, which have grown more widespread, police and educators said.

“People are hypervigilant,” said Suffolk County acting Police Commissioner Stuart Cameron. “I absolutely encourage people to report it to the police. Despite the volume of these threats, we thoroughly investigate every one of them.”

Suffolk police reported that for all of last year 104 threats were investigated at local schools. This year, that number has climbed to 189, with at least 74 reported since the Florida shooting alone.

“Fortunately we haven’t had any that are indicative that they are a true threat to a school,” Cameron said.

Nassau police said that 86 threats have been reported to law enforcement so far this year — 76 since the Parkland shootings. A total of 48 were reported for all of last year.

The issue of school security has intensified throughout the region and nation since the rampage in Florida allegedly carried out by former Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz, who police said used a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle. The 19-year-old has been indicted on 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. He is being held without bond and could face the death penalty. A not-guilty plea has been entered on his behalf.

Safety plans re-examined

In the weeks since, local school districts have re-examined their safety plans, tightened security, and at least two districts — Miller Place and Hauppauge — have added armed guards to their security staffs.

Local law enforcement officials and educators acknowledge that while many reports may be false in nature, in this climate every tip and perceived threat must be investigated and taken seriously. Authorities in Nassau and Suffolk have warned that making false threats carries criminal penalties.

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder has said the department will charge anyone who makes threats to schools in the county with making a terroristic threat — a Class D felony punishable by up to 7 years in prison.

Ryder on Friday said several efforts are underway to connect Nassau police with local schools. Districts can now enroll in the “RAVE” system, which he said provides an early alert notification system to the department, updated training in active-shooter scenarios, other safety drills and continued education.

“Every police officer in a post car in Nassau County must make at least one unannounced visit to a school each school day,” he added.

School officials also say that the increasing number of reported threats has shown a greater vigilance among people in the community.

“It is good that people are saying something when they see or hear something. It gives responding teams time to look into the threats and, if deemed credible, we can act,” said Lars Clemensen, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

There have been several arrests within the past month for false threats, officials said. For example, Suffolk police arrested a teenage girl who, they said, returned home and called 911 to falsely report a threat of a shooting at a Cold Spring Harbor school on March 9, after clashing with school administrators.

In late February, a student at Valley Stream North High School, which has about 1,300 students, was arrested in connection with a social-media post threatening violence to the school and students, police said. His attorney said at the time that it was a “stupid joke” while adding that he understood the response given the severity of the situation.

Law enforcement and schools also have been dealing with threats originating outside the region — and spreading quickly through social media — that either directly or indirectly reference Long Island schools.

A Snapchat post showing a note scrawled on a high school desk in Queens was seen by Long Island students and prompted stepped-up security at several schools, school and police officials have said.

Some threats reported to police have turned out to be simple misunderstandings.

Suffolk police on Wednesday responded to a Bayport elementary school after some students heard other students discussing a bomb. Officials in the Bayport-Blue Point school district reported that it was a false alarm and students were explaining a video game that challenges players to stop a bomb from exploding.

All incidents documented

Cameron said he is personally notified of every school threat to make sure it is handled properly. All school incidents are documented and sent to the criminal-intelligence unit to determine if there are patterns, he said.

Educators must also consider a balanced response to students who make threats, or who are accused of making them, school officials said. Schools must work with law enforcement, but guidance counselors, school psychologists and other staff have a role to play in the attempt to address the behavior of a troubled student.

Discipline can “only be part of the solution,” said Clemensen, who’s the superintendent of the Hampton Bays district, in addition to leading the Suffolk school chiefs association. “Punishing a kid and that kid serving that punishment — that may not solve the problem.”

“It’s not that you don’t just go back to class,” he said. Educators “come up with an action plan to make sure that student’s needs are being met.”

Chris Donarummo, assistant to the superintendent in the Plainview-Old Bethpage schools, with about 4,800 students, said the district has a several-step process to address such incidents.

“We take every threat seriously — police are called and the response hasn’t changed since Parkland,” he said. Students can also face discipline internally, depending on the severity of the offense, he said.

In February, officials in the district alerted parents to a social media post, sent anonymously to high school administrators that resulted in a female student being questioned by police and released to her parents. A note from the district to parents said the post featured “guns and racist remarks.”

Donarummo said that the district is also considering expanding its anonymous reporting system such as through an app or other web-based tool.

“The big difference in the environment is that you can’t discount anything — you have to investigate,” he said.

School threats reported to Nassau Police:

2017 = 48

2018 = 86 including 76 occurred since the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14

School threats reported to Suffolk Police:

2017= 104

2018= 189 including at least 74 since Parkland (Feb. 14)

Source: Nassau and Suffolk County Police Departments

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