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Cop shift changes at Suffolk schools latest campus safety push

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart is shown

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart is shown in her office at police headquarters in Yaphank on June 26. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Suffolk police kicked off a pilot program this week that has officers using neighborhood schools for shift changes, part of a push for improved safety and reduced response time in the event of a mass shooting.

The program, which began Tuesday, is designed to shore up safety at Suffolk campuses by focusing on an increased visual police presence and making officers more familiar with school layouts, officials said.

When department officials came up with the plan, they did so with mass shootings like the one in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in mind, said Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart.

The program started at schools patrolled by the Fourth Precinct but will eventually be rolled out to others, Hart said.

“We will see how it goes,” Hart said, “and if we have any problems we will rectify them and then expand it to other precincts.”

Four schools within the Fourth Precinct patrol — one each from the Kings Park, Hauppauge, Sachem and Smithtown school districts — are participating in the initial program, officials said, adding that for security reasons, they would not identify the campuses.

Educators from districts participating in the program said they welcomed the opportunity to work closely with police.

“I think it is a good idea for police to be more familiar with our campuses and have their presence at schools become more routine,” said Dr. James Grossane, the superintendent of the Smithtown school district.

Dr. Dennis O’Hara, the superintendent of the Hauppauge school district, agreed.

“Anything that puts police officers in and around our buildings is an improvement,” O’Hara said.

Superintendent Ken Bossert, who oversees the Elwood school district in the Suffolk police department’s Second Precinct, said he supports using campuses for officer shift changes as long as the decision is made by educators and administrators.

“It has to be a local decision made by the school district,” said Bossert, who also serves as president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. “We don’t want schools to be assigned to this. It should be a matter of local control.”

In August, Suffolk police launched a school safety initiative that included the pilot program as well as highly visible visits from police officers at the 450 public and private grade schools in the department’s jurisdiction.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone also signed legislation this summer authorizing the county to borrow $2 million for a smartphone-based emergency alert system so school staffs can instantly alert police and other school personnel during a mass shooting or other emergency.

Nassau officials announced in August that police officers will also make unannounced school visits through the school year. An emergency alert system that provides a direct line from school buildings to police was installed in Nassau schools earlier this year, officials said.

In another sign of the growing concern over protecting students, teachers and other school staff, hundreds attended a Nassau County school safety forum at Hofstra University last month where the discussion centered on preventing school shootings, the ongoing opioid-addiction crisis, and combating cyberbullying.

In September, Suffolk County Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) introduced a bill that would require the police department to use schools as “relief points” for shift changes when practical. Trotta, a former Suffolk police detective, said officers have historically depended on firehouses for shift changes, in part to allow cops access to telephones before the widespread use of cellphones.

“If the bill prompted action, that’s great,” Trotta said. “It doesn’t matter who gets credit. It’s just about a prompt, cost-effective public safety response and protecting our children.”

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said the legislature would consider Trotta’s bill.

“If it’s the intention to bring more police presence to the school,” Gregory said, “that’s a good thing.”

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