East Hampton Ramps Up School Safety

Village to station officers; security will be studied

    Since the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six adult staffers dead, parents across the nation have worried about the safety and security of their children — a concern that grows especially acute during school hours.
    On Tuesday, in response to a joint letter signed by the Parent Teacher Association presidents of John M. Marshall Elementary School and the East Hampton Middle School, East Hampton Village officials decided to reinstate a part-time police officer at both schools. The letter had received “overwhelming parental support,” according to Wendy Geehreng, who heads the middle school PTA.
    “In 2013, we live in a different world. Our K-12 students are taught on cue to get to a safe place as quickly as possible. They know what ‘lockout’ and ‘lockdown’ mean,” read the letter, co-signed by Erica Hren of John Marshall’s PTA. “We, as parents, know for many reasons, Sandy Hook could have happened here or anywhere else. We are not immune to the dangers. We, as parents, ask that the village, for the safety of the children and teachers, place an officer in our schools to serve as a DARE officer, and to also be a police presence.”
    Starting next week, a part-time police officer will patrol both the elementary and middle schools.
    For years, a full-time DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer circulated between the two schools. Last spring, the village voted to eliminate the position, citing both the questionable effectiveness of the DARE program and budgetary constraints.
    “After the incident at Sandy Hook, some of the parents decided that they would feel better if they had more police presence. We discussed it as a board, and decided there was a relevance to that,” said Richard Lawler, a village board member. The village officer who patrols both campuses at the beginning and end of the school day will continue to do so, he said, and to make periodic drop-in visits as in the past.
    The village did not allocate money to pay for the increased police presence. “Chief Larsen will carry it out with the budget that he has,” Mr. Lawler said.
    The chief confirmed that one of his three detectives would now be assigned to patrol the two schools for three days each week.
    “Manpower-wise, we’re at a minimum now,” he said. “We are going to accommodate it, but it’s putting us in an awkward situation. We’ll now be running with two detectives. It’s the only way I could do it and not pay overtime.”
    As things stand, said Chief Larsen, the town and village forces are training together. “God forbid, were something to happen, it will be a joint effort.”
    East Hampton High School, which is outside village limits, has a town police officer assigned to the high school five days a week.
    “The saying that it takes a village to raise a child rings true here.  Our village of East Hampton, under the leadership of Mayor Rickenbach, the village board, and Chief Gerry Larsen took a great step in improving the safety and welfare of the children this week,” said Ms. Geehreng. “For this, we are truly grateful.”
    Talk of increased school security similarly ruled the night at Tuesday evening’s East Hampton School Board meeting. The board ultimately voted 5-1 to hire Michael J. Guido Jr., a Rocky Point-based architect, to perform “security audits” at each of the three schools, at a cost of $18,000. Mr. Guido has worked with the district on past projects.
    Jackie Lowey took issue with the contract, calling it a “sole-source contract” that had not been put out to bid. She was the only board member to vote against it. “It’s a lot of money for a small school district,” she said.
    Mr. Guido estimated his costs at around $6,000 per building. “We’ll look at the doors, fences, are there places for people to hide, are the structures safe from an automobile intrusion. We’ll go through procedures with staff, interview police, ask people how things are handled, how they handle visitors, attendance, whether it’s an open or closed campus.”
    Superintendent Richard J. Burns said he had met with school administrators, head custodians, and the village and town police chiefs in the weeks following Sandy Hook. “Everybody has a prescription about what we should do, what we’re lacking, what we’re not lacking. Should there be locks on doors, shades on the windows. The responses have been astronomical,” he said. “It makes the most sense to have an architect that’s familiar with the community and will give us an appraisal that’s well beyond a bureaucratic response.”
    Time is of the essence, said the superintendent.  “We need a comprehensive plan. Let’s stop with the Band-Aids. What we need is a unified vision.”