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Long IslandEducation

Securing LI’s schools: Districts review safety plans

Officials reassure parents, students and staffers in emails and letters. Some say security measures are being added before schools reopen on Monday.

John T. Powell, left, an assistant superintendent in

John T. Powell, left, an assistant superintendent in the Great Neck school district, and security officer Richard Castro discuss the district's security procedures at the school system's Lakeville Road security office on Feb. 22, 2018. Photo Credit: Newsday / William Perlman

School districts across Long Island have sought since the mass shooting at a Florida high school to reassure parents and staffers of existing safety measures, and some have reported that stronger security will be in place Monday as students return from the nine-day midwinter break.

In emails and letters to families and employees, school officials explained what schools already are doing and will do to protect against violence and remain vigilant about threats. Many districts, in letters and postings on their websites, also said grief counselors will continue to be available for students.

Some of the communications were sent a day or two after 17 people were killed in the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Others came during the February recess.

At least two districts in Suffolk County — Port Jefferson and Elwood — have scheduled public meetings Monday evening to discuss school safety, according to the systems’ websites.

This week, the Great Neck school district sent an email to parents and staff from Assistant Superintendent John T. Powell, saying that officials are “evaluating all safety and security procedures currently in place in our district and are in the process of adding a number of additional measures this week, to be implemented before school reopens on Monday morning.”

Powell, in an interview, said inquiries from residents prompted the communication. The district has strong protocols in place, he said, including a 24-hour security presence with roving security guards and multiple drills that take place during the school year.

After the Florida shooting, district officials immediately reviewed security and emergency procedures, he said.

“We reviewed everything we had in place. We still feel it is quite adequate,” Powell said. “However, it is always important to test what you already have.”

The district now is taking steps to strengthen interior door locks and has scheduled an assessment of potential threats with the Nassau County Police Department.

Powell said schools can take lessons from tragic incidents to strengthen security plans.

“It is horrible to think that you have to learn from a tragedy, but you do. You look at it and you adjust your security measures on what they actually faced,” he said, referring to the Florida attack, when authorities said Nikolas Cruz, 19, entered his former school and gunned people down with a semiautomatic weapon he had purchased legally.

Many school systems across the Island took fresh looks at their security infrastructure, plans and procedures after a tragedy much closer to home — the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which gunman Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adult staffers.

Since then, local districts have reported spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ramped-up protection, including the installation of security cameras, contracting with agencies that monitor buildings, hiring better-trained security guards and revamping visitor restrictions.

Statewide, the New York State Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, or NYSAFE Act, signed into law in 2013, provided more funding for upgrades in schools, such as entry-control systems, electronic and video surveillance and hardening of entryways, with replacement of doors and the addition of other mechanisms.

School systems decide locally whether to install such features. Since the measure’s enactment, districts statewide have reported to the Education Department that they have spent more than $20 million on projects.

The NYSAFE Act included a 10 percent incentive for districts that performed such approved work, which was extended through the current school year. An extension into the 2018-19 school year is included in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed budget.

In addition, the Smart Schools Bond Act, approved by voters statewide in 2014, authorized $2 billion to finance improvements in educational technology and infrastructure.

Those funds included money to install high-tech security features in school buildings and on school campuses. So far, of the $169.1 million in approved expenditures, districts statewide have spent $56.1 million, according to the Education Department.

Lars Clemensen, superintendent of the Hampton Bays district and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said districts already have partnerships with local police, and the approach to school safety is very different now than in 1999, when 12 students and one teacher were killed at Columbine High School in Colorado by two of the school’s students.

“School districts have put a lot of money and focus on security,” he said. “I don’t think any of that is going to stop.”

Indeed, the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School compelled school officials to focus once again on the steps they are taking to keep children safe — and whether what they are doing is enough.

“Are we making the smartest decisions?” Clemensen asked, saying he anticipates that officials in local districts will coordinate further with law enforcement and review their existing procedures. “What are we missing? And what can we enhance?”

The schools chief also noted that a focus on security is not the only need.

“We lose our way in society if that is our only conversation,” he said, adding that efforts must be made to support students who may be troubled “on how to cope and persevere and not turn to violence when there is some sort of challenge.”

In the Bayport-Blue Point district, educators sent a letter to the local community dated Feb. 15 — a day after the Florida shooting — making them aware of security enhancements, including the addition of personnel and creation of a task force to review procedures. The note also said that several measures already were underway to tighten security, including approval of security vestibules for each of the district’s schools. The district plans to install license scanners at school buildings.

“I want to assure you that the safety of our students and staff is our top priority,” Superintendent Timothy Hearney wrote.

The Hauppauge district has scheduled another set of lockdown drills for the coming week. It practices the drills all year long, said Superintendent Dennis O’Hara.

“I believe it is impossible to plan for every scenario,” he said in an interview. “Practicing hiding and lockdown drills — God forbid we have that experience in our schools — will give us the seconds and minutes to save lives and enable law enforcement to arrive and end the threat.”

With Michael R. Ebert

CORRECTION An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the license scanners the district plans to install.

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