Bellmore-Merrick district puts school safety in the spotlight


In the wake of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead and the country grieving while it drew battle lines over gun control, local school officials swiftly moved to reassure parents that their children were safe, while community leaders and students alike called for action.

“Yesterday was a difficult day to be a parent, a teacher, a principal and most notably, a child,” David Seinfeld, acting principal at John F. Kennedy High School, wrote in a Feb. 15 email to parents. “We worked diligently to answer students’ questions and allay their fears.”

Seinfeld responded to several parents’ concerns following the Florida shooting, some stemming from the presence of police vehicles at Kennedy. According to Seinfeld, Nassau County police officers regularly make visits just to “check in” on the school, something that has become a part of normal safety procedures in the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District.

“One of the assistant principals and I spoke with the officers about the Parkland tragedy and shared with them how uniquely affected our community has been by the incident,” Seinfeld said. “They stayed for about 10 minutes, I offered them a bottle of water, and they left.”

District officials flagged their districtwide emergency planning guide for parents following the shooting, reminding parents that officials have “always been serious about being prepared for emergencies.”

“The plan addresses an enormous range of issues, dealing with the onset of a crisis situation, to addressing the psychological and emotional needs of students and adults in its aftermath,” the policy states.

Following state law, the district’s five schools conduct drills throughout the year, including simulations of lockdown situations. In a lockdown, which would occur in the event that a shooter made it inside a school, students must stay out of sight, in the room they are in. Students in the halls are ordered to go into the nearest classroom. Only emergency responders can end a lockdown.

The district’s emergency plan stressed that parents should not attempt to pick up their children from school in the event of an emergency, even though it may be their natural instinct. Communication among district officials, parents and the media to ensure that accurate information is available, officials said, is key. In his letter, Seinfeld agreed, thanking parents for relaying their concerns.

“These are tough times and we understand that the community is on edge,” he said. “I very much appreciate your reaching out to us. It allows us the ability to communicate accurately and correct any false rumors.”

Steve Rhoads, a Republican county legislator from Bellmore, said last week that local school districts should join a school safety alert network called Rave Mobile Safety, which can trigger a quicker, more efficient response by law enforcement in an active-shooter situation.

Twenty of Nassau’s 56 school are connected to the Rave system, according to Detective Lt. Richard LeBrun, the NCPD’s public information officer.

The list of districts that participate is not made publicly available, for safety reasons.

While it’s optional for school districts to join Rave, each must by state law develop and maintain its own districtwide safety plan, hold monthly drills and conduct regular staff training on the plan.

“Every school district must within itself do all that it can to make sure students are protected,” Rhoads said. “Those of us in government should look at ways we can assist them in doing that.”

U.S. Rep. Peter King, a Republican from Seaford, agreed in a recent interview, noting that it is ultimately up to school officials to keep their students safe, but also expressing support for further national gun control measures.

At Calhoun High School, a number of students plan to take part in a nationwide walkout protest against gun violence on March 14. Dubbed “Enough,” the walkout, according to organizers, calls for students, teachers, administrators and parents to walk out for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. to protest inaction on guns by Congress.

Kara Vecchione, a Calhoun senior, plans to participate in the walkout, and told the Herald last week that she cannot remember a time in her life without school violence occurring or being under discussion.

This time, Vecchione said, the voices of students may help change the conversation. “I think it’s very important,” she said. “We go through the same song and dance every time.”

She added that students plan to wear orange on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, and participate in a more coordinated event.

Central District Superintendent John DeTommaso could not be reached for comment by press time on how the district would address the planned March 14 walkout.