$1.5 Million in Fixes

Sandy Hook prompted sweeping school review

Since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, which left 20 children and 6 adult staffers dead, school districts around the country have ramped up their security procedures, preparing for worst-case scenarios while simultaneously scrambling to institute costly fixes during lean budgetary times. The East Hampton School District is no exception.

Two months after Sandy Hook, the school board voted 5-to-1 to hire Michael J. Guido Jr., a Rocky Point architect, to audit security procedures at  each of the district’s three schools. Jackie Lowey, who balked at the $18,000 cost, was the lone dissenter.

“I don’t know of any district that hasn’t done them in one form or another,” Mr. Guido said. Paul Timm, who runs RETA Security, an Illinois school security firm, took part in the audit. Together, the men made several recommendations, ultimately suggesting both procedural and physical changes.

Mr. Guido, who has worked with the district in the past, conducted the audit with Mr. Timm over a two-day period in March 2013. The school board reviewed their report on July 30, during a closed session.

In the nearly nine months since, school officials have declined to discuss details related to student and staff safety in the district’s three main buildings and have not publicly addressed the report’s findings. The school board was to have convened a special meeting last night, which was to immediately adjourn into an executive session, to again discuss issues related to security.

“The safety and security of our students and staff are of the utmost importance,” said Richard J. Burns, the superintendent, last Thursday. After reviewing the initial report, he explained that board members had separated the recommended fixes into two categories — procedural changes that did not cost anything, and physical improvements that would have to be paid for.

The proposed 2014-15 school budget includes recommended fixes totaling $1.43 million. “We put the equivalent funds in the budget to be approved by voters and are moving to implement the recommendations in order to have a safe place for the students and the employees,” said Isabel Madison, the district’s assistant superintendent for business.

Patricia Hope, the board president, said the district expected to begin the fixes in the next fiscal year, which starts on July 1. The security report, she said, was presented to the board too late for the fixes to have started in 2013-14.

Though they declined to discuss the specifics of the procedural changes, apart from the requirement that staffBurns and Ms. Madison said that from 7 to 12 such changes had been made at each school. In addition, at East Hampton Middle School, several cypress and rhododendrons were cut down and sold after their size presented a possible hiding place for miscreants. Smaller shrubs now stand in their place.

“Approximately 90 percent of the procedural recommendations have been addressed,” said Ms. Hope.

J.P. Foster, another board member, said a lot of those fixes were simple. Once the physical changes are made, Mr. Burns

said, he would be “happy to supply a checklist” for public review.

 In July, Kerri Stevens, the district clerk, denied an initial Freedom of Information Act request from The Star to see the security audit. Two weeks ago, in response to an appeal, the district released portions of the RETA Security report; however, none of the material visible in the heavily redacted document described actual conditions in the schools.

The report numbers nine pages, including two pages for each of the district’s three schools. For each school, the one-page introductions are blacked out. The only section that remains gives the date the audit took place and says that it “was conducted through staff interviews, by distributing surveys, and through visual observation.”

Though the report says certain areas were documented using a digital camera, and that photographs accompany the report, no such documentation was provided. It also says it incorporated “proprietary checklists” related to discouraging, recognizing, slowing, and reacting to unauthorized actions, in addition to demonstrating “security consciousness and control.”

It concludes by stating: “As intended, the assessment identified both strengths and weaknesses of the existing security program. The goal of this report is to address and overcome weaknesses.” The remainder is blacked out in its entirety. 

School officials contended last week that revealing the district’s “strengths and weaknesses” would threaten the safety of students and staff.

Robert J. Freeman, director of the Committee on Open Government, part of the New York State Department of State, said the wide swaths of redacted material “seemed to be in compliance with the law.” Since Sept. 11, 2001, he said, he often sees what he called “blanket denials of access” following similar risk assessments.

“Historically, over the past 15 years at least, this kind of record has typically been withheld in great measure — if not in its entirety,” Mr. Freeman said.

Some parents and staff members were disturbed to hear of so much redacted material.

“It’s kind of like when the Bush administration would release information. Well, thanks for nothing,” said Courtney Garneau, who has three children in district schools, after reviewing a copy of the report this week.

Ms. Garneau is a member of site-based committees of parents, teachers, and administrators at both John M. Marshall Elementary School and East Hampton Middle School. She regularly attends meetings of those committees, and said the findings of the security report had yet to be mentioned, although there have been several procedural changes, mostly involving the implementation of name tags and a sign-in protocol. But, she said, she is still able to walk into the Middle School on her way to monthly meetings during after-school hours without supplying identification. 

School board members, with an eye to the coming budget vote on May 20, continued to emphasize the importance of the physical changes.

Ms. Lowey in particular underscored that issues related to security are not static and that they require vigorous, constant review.

“We need to be vigilant and constantly looking and upgrading our processes and procedures. Given the world we live in today, it’s important that schools take additional steps. We have to do everything possible to prepare for any sort of scenario,” she said. “I feel confident that my children and other children are as safe as they can possibly be, given the times we now live in.”