School Safety at Issue After Florida Shooting

East Hampton’s $1.43 million security fixes were never made public
Durell Godfrey

According to Niche, an online education review and ranking system, the East Hampton School District ranked 30 out of 55 schools in Suffolk County for safety, while Southampton was ranked as the number-one safest school on the list. Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton placed 41st and 42nd, respectively. 

The rankings on the Niche website are based on “rigorous analysis of data from the United States Department of Education along with millions of reviews from students and parents.” 

In the aftermath of the deadly Parkland, Fla., shooting, safety in schools has become an intense focus. From a planned national school walkout, organized by students who are demanding stricter gun control, to President Trump’s announcement that “highly trained” teachers should carry firearms, school safety continues to stir debate and raise questions throughout the country. 

In East Hampton, the subject was almost prophetically raised on Dec. 12 by Walter Quiroz, a parent of an East Hampton High School student. During a school board meeting that day, Mr. Quiroz read a letter in Spanish, which was translated into English. 

“In the past few years, policies have been implemented to monitor who enters and leaves the buildings. We applaud you for that effort,” he read. “Our worry, however, is that it does not guarantee that a student or a person cannot carry with them arms or weapons that can hurt others.”

Mr. Quiroz and the parents he represented asked the school board to explore and implement another policy on security measures that would “guarantee or prohibit” weapons being taken into the school.

The current safety procedure requires all visitors to East Hampton School District buildings to show valid identification before entering during school hours. However, this reporter and others recently entered the high school on several occasions during early evening sports games and theater rehearsals without having to show identification.

The issue of safety in East Hampton schools became newsworthy in 2013, when the school board voted to hire a Rocky Point architect to audit security procedures at each of the district’s three schools. The vote took place two months after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which killed 26 children and staff members. The audit, which cost the district $18,000, was conducted over two days in March 2013 and the board reviewed its findings that July during a closed session. At the time, Isabel Madison, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, said, “We are moving to implement the recommendations in order to have a safe place for the students and the employees.”

However, according to The Star, in April 2014 the school board declined to address the report’s findings publicly or list specifics regarding security fixes, which cost taxpayers $1.43 million. At the time, Patricia Hope, board president, said, “Approximately 90 percent of the procedural recommendations have been addressed.” 

Richard Burns, the district superintendent, said that once the physical changes were completed he would be “happy to supply a checklist” for public review. Although a nine-page document was finally shared, it was almost entirely blacked out. The only visible section gave the date the audit took place and stated that it “was conducted through staff interviews, by distributing surveys, and through visual observation.” According to school officials, the reason for the redacted document was that revealing the strengths and weaknesses of the school district could threaten the safety of students and staff.

This week, almost four years later, the Star has made several attempts without success to find out what the 90 percent of changes were, and if the remaining 10 percent were ever implemented. Instead, Mr. Burns has posted an announcement on the East Hampton School District website. Its full text follows:

“I would like to remind our community of the steps we have taken and will continue to take with regards to safety,” he wrote. “Please know that our district has been working tirelessly to ensure the safety of our students and staff. In the last several years, we have implemented many security upgrades districtwide. Each year we conduct vital emergency drills with students and staff, and review our emergency safety plans. After each review we evaluate and make any necessary adjustments to district protocols and procedures. Additionally, we are in constant communication with our local police departments and authorities, who play a significant role in our emergency preparedness.”

In Springs, Debra Winter, the district superintendent, outlined a detailed plan via an email to The Star. Late last year, she said, a retired Suffolk County detective walked through the school, observing its emergency drills, including lock-out and lockdown protocols. “He was happy with our drills,” she wrote, adding that he suggested the purchase of a card reader that would scan driver’s licenses and state-issued identification cards to check against lists of known criminals. As reported in The Star on Dec. 14, Ms. Winter said she has urged the board to consider buying such a reader, which would be placed in the main entrance vestibule. 

Additionally, Ms. Winter wrote in her email this week, the detective “agreed that all students should be under one roof sooner rather than later.” Ms. Winter has been an outspoken proponent of the Springs School’s expansion plan, which would allow all students to be in one building, rather than continuing to have certain classes conducted at nearby locations. 

The district will vote Tuesday on a $16.9 million bond for expansion and renovation. Opponents have suggested that instead of such an expense, the school should consider erecting temporary classrooms on the grounds. Ms. Winter has made it clear that that alternative will not be considered, in particular for safety reasons.

In addition, Ms. Winter said she has spoken to the school board about hiring security and that she would “be writing a letter to our local assemblyman regarding the cost of security, which should be funded locally or at least outside the [state-mandated] cap. I will also be recommending to the board a resolution to regulate access to firearms in the interest of public safety . . . and advances in mental health support.”

Finally, Ms. Winter said, “I am not in agreement that we need more guns in schools and that teachers should carry concealed weapons in classrooms. We need to focus on preventing tragedies before they happen. We need local government to provide schools with security and additional mental health staff. We need character education programs to teach resilience. I would love to see the state mandate parent training and workshops. We provide wonderful programs for parents every year and only a handful of parents show up and it’s usually the parents who least need the training or information.” 

In Montauk, Jack Perna, the district superintendent, announced in an email that “as of Monday, we hired a security company called Blue Line Protection, which employs only retired or off-duty police officers.” He added, “I would not want to see my teachers armed. If security is needed, then properly trained and equipped people should be hired.”

Mr. Perna agreed with Ms. Winter that the state or federal government should come forward with funding for school security, as some districts may not have the financial ability to hire outside protection. “The safety and security of all students, statewide and nationwide, should be an equal right, not a privilege,” he said.   

Meanwhile, parents of students at the Ross School’s lower campus in Bridgehampton received an email this week informing them that a lockdown drill had been conducted with the help of the Southampton Town Police Department and that regular fire and lockdown drills would continue during the remainder of the school year.