Snapchat Threat Put School Security to Test

The swift arrest three weeks ago of a 19-year-old Bridgehampton man who is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday to face charges related to posting a Snapchat message that triggered a manhunt for him and caused law enforcement to shut down a Southampton High School homecoming event was an unwanted reminder that the risk of school-related violence is everywhere.

But the Oct. 5 incident involving Kevin S. Chavez was also a chance for local law enforcement and school officials from Southampton to Montauk to see how the precautions they have in place would work in real time, and then consider whether their already robust safety policies need any changes or additions.

“There is collaboration,” Detective Sgt. Herm Lamison of the Southampton Village police said in a phone interview Monday. “In this case, everybody did what they were supposed to do in the moment. We got everybody into the right place at the right time. And it is good to know the training actually works when and if something happens — which we pray it never does.”

The timeline and details of how the Southampton case unfolded according to village police were impressive: A student saw Mr. Chavez’s Snapchat post showing three males in a vehicle with what appeared to be an AR-15 assault rifle, accompanied by the message “pulling up to SH after homecoming.” The student quickly alerted school officials shortly after 9:30 p.m. rather than dismissing the threat outright.

There were about 110 students at a homecoming after-party that Saturday night at the school on Narrow Lane. More than 20 officers, including New York State police and Southampton Town police equipped with AR-15 rifles and two K-9 units, assisted village police in rapidly securing the perimeter around the campus. They also closed off the entire street. The school was put in “lockout” mode, meaning no one could enter or leave the building until the threat was considered over. 

As all of that was happening, police were simultaneously able to quickly pinpoint Mr. Chavez’s whereabouts that night and arrest him in East Hampton at 11:56 p.m. — or about two and a half hours after his online post was reported. Police said they were also able to quickly locate the weapon he posed with — a Sig Sauer Airgun, which looks like an AR-15, the assault weapon so often used in mass shootings in this country. But the airgun shoots round, dome, or hollow-point pellets.

Mr. Chavez was charged with a misdemeanor in connection with the incident. He was also taken to undergo a psychological evaluation at Stony Brook University Hospital. 

His scheduled hearing on Tuesday will be in Southampton Village Justice Court.

“I think for a long time everybody thought this couldn’t happen out east,” Debra Winter, superintendent of the Springs School, said Monday. “With the Southampton incident, you can’t ignore it. You have to say, ‘It could happen out here.’ I think all the time about Sandy Hook [a mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults died in 2012]. That was an elementary school in an upper-scale community. . . . In Southampton, you have to credit the students that came forward. That is where this was really foiled. It’s something we all try to teach.”

Even before Mr. Chavez’s post and arrest, local schools have constantly been evaluating their policies and implementing changes to fit their districts.

As a starting point, every public school in New York State is required to comply with Project SAVE (Safe Schools Against Violence in Education) legislation. The law mandates that each district implement a detailed action plan for emergencies. A follow-up law, the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 (or SAFE Act), was written and passed in 2013 in response to the Sandy Hook killings and another shooting in Webster, N.Y. At the time, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo described the SAFE Act as the toughest gun control law in the United States.

Today, the East Hampton and Montauk School Districts post their entire safety plans on their district websites so anyone can see the measures in place. The plans include things such as mandatory staff training, regular emergency response drills for teachers and students, and protocols to follow should an incident take place. They are constantly rehearsed and reviewed.

Many local schools also have hired armed or unarmed security guards during the day, and some make accommodations for after-school monitoring, sometimes with the help of groups like Project Most, the nonprofit that runs after-school programs at Springs and the John M. Marshall Elementary School in East Hampton. The guards are often retired police.

Montauk is one of the schools that has armed guards in place.

“A secure feeling at school mentally, emotionally, and physically, should be a right, not a privilege nationwide,” 

Jack Perna, superintendent of Montauk School, said, noting that Montauk had guards in place the first school day after the Parkland School shootings in Florida on Feb. 14, but funding disparities among districts “don’t always mean that’s possible everywhere. And that’s unfair.”

“By the way, I’m also not looking for teachers to carry guns,” Mr. Perna added. “That’s crazy. You get someone trained who knows what should be done.”

Ms. Winter, who has been at the Springs School just over a year, invited a retired Suffolk County detective to walk through the school and observe its emergency drills, including lockout and lockdown protocols. Then the school acted on his recommendations and installed a security system and card reader in the main vestibule that not only requires visitors to be buzzed in, but can scan visitors’ driver’s licenses and state-issued identification cards to check against lists of known criminals. Visitors without appointments cannot enter.

At the Bridgehampton School, which also uses a buzz-in security system, the superintendent, Robert Hauser, reported to the school board a few weeks ago about one of the initiatives the district is working on in conjunction with the Suffolk County Executive’s office. It’s a personal safety app for students’ phones called RAVE. Mr. Hauser said the district is working to customize the app more before making it available for downloading. When in use, it has a GPS-type location service and shows a user’s location and pushes their 911 call to the head of the line for faster help. 

Even on a student level, the safety messages aren’t confined to apps, or running practice drills, or even telling students if you see something, say something — an important pillar of the safety plan that worked so well in the Southampton case. 

Many local schools are also working actively with students on consciousness-raising initiatives such as actively encouraging empathy for others, or discouraging bullying. They teach children to be advocates for classmates. They’re encouraging them to report abuse or domestic violence at home, or fears that someone they know will show up at school.

Montauk is among the schools holding a Red Ribbon Week this week that the district’s website described as “A time when our entire Montauk School community comes together to help our students develop good habits early in life to help them achieve future success” and “promote our theme: Life is a journey . . . kindness begins with me.”

“It’s a message we try to teach every day,” Mr. Perna said. “It’s not always associated with something you do for school safety. But it is. If even one kid stops and thinks before saying something, or they see something and say something as they did in Southampton, then maybe we did help somebody.”