By all accounts, the atmosphere inside the Jack Abrams Intermediate School in Huntington Station allows students to thrive. It has the hallmarks of a model suburban education: dedicated teachers and staff, supportive administration and a stimulating academic program.
But recent incidents outside have many parents worried.
Since the first of the year, sporadic episodes of violence near the Lowndes Avenue school- a shooting death in February on nearby Broadway and, days before classes began in September, a nonfatal shooting across the street from the school - have sounded an alarm. Some parents have even gone as far as to urge that it be relocated.
The school for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders - renamed last year for a former district teacher and principal - has become a symbol in an intensifying debate about the safety of the community, which is recalled as thriving into the 1960s as a multicultural haven.
The recent shootings have led some to describe the area as "troubled" and "unsafe" - even as reports of violent crime in the community have fallen over the past several years.
"I can understand parents being upset with individual acts of violence," Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said in a recent interview. "But they have to understand we are making a tremendous effort to reduce crime, and we anticipate it's a downward trend."
Nevertheless, the community is unfairly "looked upon as a community of crime," said Dolores Thompson, a longtime activist who runs the Huntington Enrichment Center in Huntington Station and has been a voice in the effort to improve the community's image. "And now with the recent shootings, it's considered even worse."
Calls for relocation
At community and school board meetings, parents have complained of seeing hypodermic needles on the school playground, unconscious drunk men nearby and a police presence that can be intimidating to children.
Parents have circulated petitions calling on the school board to "remedy these problems."
Two parents, Amy Girimonti and Kelly Paci, wife of school board member John Paci, launched an e-mail campaign to relocate the school because "keeping it there only forces other families that do not live in that area to be in harm's way."
Girimonti did not return calls, and Paci declined to comment. School board president Bill Dwyer has said relocating the school "is not viable."
Since the September shooting, in which a 22-year-old man was shot in the abdomen and arm in front of 1 Tower St., officials have taken action:
The school board has hired an additional security guard for the school (there are now three full-time guards and one part-time guard) and approved installation of a relief point there for Suffolk police officers patrolling the sector.
Levy has committed a permanent foot patrol to the area and approved installation of video cameras in the neighborhood.
The town expanded an anti-crime task force, formed in 2003, into the Huntington Station Action Coalition, 19 community leaders who will oversee efforts to revitalize Huntington Station.
Some parents say it's going to take time to clean up the area and while that's happening their children are at risk.
"I would like the school moved," said Arthur Danzinger of Huntington, a former school board candidate who has a daughter at Jack Abrams.
Across the street from the school, resident Michelle Folks acknowledges safety is an issue. From her perspective, relocation efforts are misplaced.
"That wouldn't solve anything," said Folks, whose daughter will enter the school in two years. "I'm also offended that those who don't live here would suggest [moving or closing the school] as if we are not concerned about our kids' safety."
Crime is down, but gangs growing
Suffolk police cite the growth of gangs as a factor contributing to crime there as it has elsewhere in the county. Reports of violent crime in the area, fairly stable in recent years, have actually fallen, from 158 in 2001 to 137 last year. Reports through September indicate 2009 is on track to match last year's numbers.
Some residents have said - at least in private conversations - that concerns go past crime and violence into the specter of race and ethnic bias, and specifically the policy of busing children from largely white neighborhoods into Huntington Station, with its sizable population of black and Latino families.
"I understand people are concerned about the well-being of their children," said Rebecca Sanin, a member of the task force and the school's PTA, who has one child in the school. "But when you abandon an area, you aren't doing anything to strengthen and fortify it."
District Superintendent John Finello said racial and ethnic concerns play less of a role in parents' concerns than do attendance zones - which are drawn by the school board to achieve population, racial and ethnic balance in schools. The zones call for some children to be bused past the other intermediate school, Woodhull, to attend Jack Abrams.
The school board has "made determinations to have those attendance zones fit that goal, and it has kept the schools balanced," he said.
The policy follows a desegregation order in the 1970s stemming from a redistricting that left one elementary school 28 percent minority and another more than 99 percent white.
Finello said parents' fears for their children's safety are driving most complaints.
Crowded housing blamed
One school board member put the blame for the neighborhood's problems on landlords who crowd several families into single-family homes. One consequence, said board member Richard McGrath, is that taxes aren't collected in proportion to the number of residents.
McGrath said he supports calls by Levy and Dormer for better enforcement of town housing codes, without which, he said, "all the police in the world won't matter."
Town Supervisor Frank Petrone has said the public safety department is taking steps to improve code enforcement townwide. The existence of apartments in what appeared to be single-family houses led the town several years ago to require homeowners to apply for accessory-apartment permits.
Finello, who has delayed a planned January retirement to help shepherd the district through the current turmoil, said he has been encouraged by town, county and school district efforts.
"We're all working very hard," he said. "We've had tremendous cooperation. It's a community effort, and that's how we'll see it through - as a community."