“I am a survivor of the worst mass shooting in the history of our country,” said Robert Gaafar, standing before a packed room at the Rockville Centre Public Library last Saturday to share his story.
More than 100 residents from around the South Shore filed into the library’s basement for a Town Hall For Our Lives event to talk about potential solutions to what State Sen. Todd Kaminsky and others called an epidemic of gun violence in America.
Gaafar was at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas last October when a gunman began spraying bullets into a sea of concertgoers from his hotel room on the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay Hotel, killing 58 and injuring 851. The Rockville Centre father took cover behind a vending trailer.
“As round after round went off, in my head, I was trying to figure out, why isn’t this ending?” he recalled. When the gunfire paused, Gaafar ran for the exits, praying that he wouldn’t be shot in the back.
He remembered the fearful faces of two police officers on the scene who nevertheless ran toward the gunfire, as well as people jumping into dumpsters in hopes of staying alive. He paused, overcome by emotion, before continuing. “There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said, referring to gun control measures. “This is going to be something I devote the rest of my life to. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen today, it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it will happen.”
Gaafar shared the lectern with Kaminsky, Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen, State Sen. John E. Brooks, new Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder and other local officials during the nearly two-hour discussion.
“We resolve this time around to do something about it,” Kaminsky said of gun violence, two months after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. “It’s been led by some very brave, courageous students who are ahead of their time. We’re taking their lead as we move forward today.”
South Shore students speak out
Students from different school districts spoke up at the talk, including South Side High School senior Julia Baxley, who urged lawmakers and other adults to listen to students, who, she said — up until the shooting in Parkland, during which a gunman killed 17 students and faculty members — did not have much of a voice in government.
“We’re the ones who have to go through the lockdown drills,” she said. “. . . There’s a ton of us, so please just talk to us. We know a lot about this and we want to be involved.” The crowd erupted when Baxley said she and her friends have registered to vote.
Oceanside High School senior Rachel Finkelstein advocated for a teacher-mentoring program, through which students meet with educators to discuss family or mental health issues confidentially, noting that it is slated to be cut next year.
Kendra Gourgue, a senior at Baldwin High School, noted that conversations in the schools about gun violence and mental health are few and far between. “There is a definite schism between the adults and the children, but at this point, are we really children with the world we’re facing?” she said. “. . . We need to be able to bridge that gap.”
Kaitlyn Gavin, a ninth-grader at Valley Stream Memorial Junior High School, asserted that the Parkland mass shooting cannot be dismissed as normal, and that action in helping to solve this issue is spurred through ideals instilled at an early age.
“It comes from our parents and how we’re being raised,” Gavin said. “It starts with the kids that are in kindergarten right now. You, as parents, should be having discussions with them and saying, ‘Everybody’s safety matters.’”
Kaminsky urged students to join forces with groups in the room, such as Moms Demand Action, the Rockville Centre Youth Council and Raising Voices USA, a Rockville Centre based advocacy organization.
Emma Travers, co-founder of Raising Voices, suggested that the students talk to one another to share their ideas. “Your voices are so powerful at the moment, and I want you all to think about that and I want you all to use this opportunity to make a difference,” she said. “Come to the adults to tell them what you want to see because the future is yours.”
Security in the schools
Ryder, appointed earlier this year by Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, discussed hardening school security and improving police response times to the 450 school buildings in Nassau County.
Police officers have been assigned to specific schools in the case of emergencies, and are mandated daily to “park, walk and talk” in order to better understand their school communities. An app called Rave is also designed to improve response times, and public schools are beginning to use it.
Ryder explained that he is not in favor of having guns in schools for protection. “We’ve taken these measures without saying we’re going to put an armed guard in front of your building,” he said, “because . . . that’s the first person that gets shot.”
Kaminsky noted that the State Education Department has had trouble processing applications as part of the Smart Schools Bond Act, approved in 2014 to help schools improve technology and infrastructure, causing a lag in funding.
Rockville Centre is not waiting for those funds to make enhancements. Two weeks after the Parkland shooting, the Board of Education earmarked funds for an automated identification reader in each school to issue photo tags to all visitors, a security guard in each of the five elementary schools and new interior doors to strengthen security. The district is also working to create anterooms, or spaces that act as an extra barrier before visitors are allowed to enter the rest of the