Securing the schools

Clear backpacks are among new East Rockaway School District safety measures

East Rockaway School District Superintendent Lisa Ruiz updated parents and community members about officials’ safety plans at an April 12 forum.
East Rockaway School District Superintendent Lisa Ruiz updated parents and community members about officials’ safety plans at an April 12 forum.
Melissa Koenig/Herald

In the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, East Rockaway School District officials are requiring junior and senior high students to carry their books and supplies in clear plastic backpacks. The measure — one of several that officials are implementing to secure the schools — took effect April 16.

Students are allowed to use their own backpacks to bring their belongings to and from school, Interim Principal Neil Lederer said at an April 12 safety forum.

The district spent $3,510 in discretionary funds to purchase 600 backpacks from Chicago-based manufacturer 4IMPRINT Inc., at a cost of $5.85 each. Lederer said that students who refuse to use the clear backpacks at school would have to meet with him, with their parents present, and that there would be further consequences if they continued to refuse to use the backpacks after that.

Lederer said the policy had been “well-received,” and added that he would recommend that his successor continue it when district officials hire a new principal for next school year.

Parent Denise Rogers told Lederer and Superintendent Lisa Ruiz that she thought the translucent backpacks were a “great idea.”

Another parent, Dan Caracciolo, expressed concern that girls would be embarrassed to carry feminine hygiene products in clear bags and questioned whether district officials thought about that issue.

“That was brought up by someone right when this happened,” Ruiz said, “and I think we are allowing girls to carry a small cross-body purse that would not be see-through.”

Ruiz explained that after the Parkland shooting, East Rockaway Junior-Senior High prohibited students from carrying backpacks during the day. “This was done in the middle of the school year, and we got some feedback that it was rather sudden,” she said. “So we wanted to give students the option to transition to carry things around during the day.”

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Lederer said of the clear backpacks. “I thought at this point in time, with all the school shootings, it’s a necessary step.”

Responding to a Herald Facebook inquiry, parent Jill Policano Russo said the plastic backpacks do not last. “My son’s backpack already ripped apart,” she said one day after the policy took effect. “It’s not that strong or big.”

Lederer said that any ripped backpacks would be replaced.

Additional measures

As part of its proposed $39.4 million 2018-19 budget, the district is adding new security guards at all three district buildings — Centre Avenue and Rhame Avenue elementary schools and the junior-senior high — next school year. Ruiz said she would like the guards to be a steady presence in the buildings. “They’ll get to know the kids,” she said. “They’ll get to know the culture and our routine.”

Also as part of next year’s budget, officials have added a full-time social worker to the district’s roster. And they are including a class in how to make a tourniquet to stop profuse bleeding.

With $200,000 in reserve funds, the district is constructing vestibules at all three of its schools that will enclose visitors until their identifications can be vetted.

In addition, with more than $200,000 in Smart Schools state funding, the district is:

Installing interior and exterior security cameras, along with alarms that sound when a door is opened, and an exterior public-address system.

Implementing a mass-notification system that will enable the district to communicate with all parents at once via phone, as well as a smartphone and computer app that will enable officials to lock down all schools at once remotely.

With a nearly $87,500 state grant, secured by Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, the district is:

Installing high-definition and night-vision security cameras, as well as intercoms at each school entrance, wired panic alarms and an automatic door lock-down system in the event of a fire.

And school visits are now by appointment only.

According to state law, the district is also required to conduct four lockdown drills each year. “What we are doing is we are training our students and faculty to be ready for different types of situations,” Lederer said.

A PowerPoint presentation about the district’s security plans is available at