North Fork officials looking carefully at school safety after Florida shooting

Just as schools were winding down for winter break, many were once again forced to confront national issues, as school safety and gun control returned to the forefront.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day left 17 dead. Along with sadness and fear for students’ safety, it has prompted a nationwide call for change.

In Southold, students plan to take part in a school walkout in April, while school and town officials double-down on school security and training to prepare for a school safety event here on the North Fork.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell has called for a meeting with school administrators to ensure the most effective protocols are in place.

“I know that the schools take security very seriously; however, I think it is important that, in order to maximize the safety of our schools, we review current policies and guidelines and update where we think necessary,” he said in an email last week.

Mr. Russell hopes coordinating with school administrators “will help enhance our frontline of defense to guard our schools and our community.”

A meeting will take place as soon as everyone’s schedule allows, he said.

“In the wake of what happened in Florida, it makes us all take a step back and re-evaluate our response plans and training for active shooter scenarios,” said Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley.

While he said it is difficult to plan for a mass shooting because each comes with its own unique set of circumstances, he feels the training currently recommended in New York State “is probably as an efficient a plan as you could have for an entire school building when faced with a threat within the building.”

Schools regularly practice lockdown and lockout drills and staff are well versed in their roles, Chief Flatley said. He has gone to each school in his jurisdiction to observe the drills and offer his comments.

In his department, officers also train regularly — including active shooter drills, firearms training and classroom training. Southold officers have also participated in Suffolk County Police Department drills in other schools.

Chief Flatley has been in discussions with school officials to set up a joint police-school staff drill in a school building, outside regular business hours. Officials have been receptive to the idea, he said, but due to scheduling difficulties, no date has been finalized.

During such drills, students would not be in the building.

“We will be visiting the drill planning on the North Fork again,” he said.

Meanwhile, Colin McCarthy, a junior at Southold High School, is organizing a demonstration as part of National School Walkout, set for Friday, April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

Students are being encouraged to attend school, then walk out of class at 10 a.m., and peacefully protest outside schools the rest of the day.

The national slogan is: “We are students, we are victims, we are change.”

Colin, 16, sees the demonstration as a way for students to advocate for their own safety.

He said he understands just how controversial a topic gun control is and respects the right to bear arms. “The problem is that nobody should be able to have an AR-15 or any type of assault weapon that can cause this magnitude of death. People simply do not need that kind of weapon in their possession,” Colin said.

He learned about the movement online within days of the Parkland shooting. “My opinion as to why students are waking up to this issue is because it has been in the forefront of social media and we all know that you can’t keep kids away from social media,” he said.

“In Southold, we are still in the very beginning stages of people starting to realize that this is a real thing that is happening in the world around us,” Colin said.

As students of all ages returned to school last Thursday, educators were mindful of the effect the shooting could have. Anne Smith, superintendent of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, said she sent an email to faculty and staff following the shooting about the critical role they play when tragedies hit schools elsewhere. “I shared the importance of routine and listening to children who may have been exposed via the news and social media to images and news that are hard to understand.”

Her district has been promoting wellness and safety, she said, and secondary staff had a workshop last Wednesday afternoon about remaining connected and in tune with students’ social and emotional needs. “This was prior to the events in Florida,” she said.

A faculty meeting was held to check in on how students were responding and to remind staff to be vigilant at all times.

Ms. Smith also reminded the staff of the importance of reviewing safety and security protocols with students.

Looking at its overall security procedures, Ms. Smith pointed out that three full-time security personnel are on staff and improving safety is part of a larger goal. Recent improvements include a new security entrance at Cutchogue East Elementary School, a new license requirement for entering the buildings and an expansion of security cameras inside and outside the buildings.

“We recently met with local law enforcement to review and plan for ways to expand our communication in the event of an emergency,” she said.

David Gamberg, superintendent at Greenport and Southold school districts, said the administration is in the process of implementing safety and security improvements at both schools.

The two districts have hired Dr. Melissa Reeves, a nationally certified school psychologist and expert in the field of school safety, “to develop a robust crisis plan for both districts,” Mr. Gamberg said. The districts meet again March 16 and he expects professional development opportunities to follow, with in-depth trainings scheduled.

In Southold, work is ongoing under a capital project to move administrative offices to the front of the secondary building, by the main entrance. Visitors will no longer be allowed to travel unsupervised throughout the building.
Parking lot lighting and surveillance cameras throughout the district are also included in the capital project.

In Greenport, school officials have begun analyzing policies and procedures to better ensure the safety of students and staff.
“In the more immediate future we are exploring the way in which the building is secured in terms of entrance and egress throughout the school day,” Mr. Gamberg said.

As both boards look toward their 2018-19 school year budgets, “staffing considerations that would enhance security” are being explored, he said.

Both districts are waiting on SMART Bond funding from the state; Southold will be installing a visitor ID management system and Greenport is awaiting final approval to use $100,858 in grant money to replace exterior doors, provide a swipe card system for staff members and add a visitor ID badge management system.

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