“This is not a problem that either you are going to solve, or we are going to solve in isolation,” Rockville Centre Schools Superintendent Dr. William Johnson told a standing-room-only crowd at the district’s Board of Education meeting on Feb. 28. “We’re going to have to work together on this one.”
More than 100 people packed into South Side High School’s meeting room, where the board approved security enhancements in all seven of the district’s schools that Johnson recommended be implemented immediately.
The meeting came exactly two weeks after a gunman opened fire on students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 people and injuring 14. Johnson said the incident “has certainly accelerated the movement of much of what we have to do.”
The five-member board unanimously approved earmarking funds for an automated identification reader in each school in order to issue photo tags to all visitors, a security guard in each of the five elementary schools and new interior doors to strengthen security. In addition to the doors, the district will creating anterooms, or spaces that act as an extra barrier before visitors are allowed to enter the rest of the building.
Five of Rockville Centre’s schools — excluding South Side Middle School and Hewitt Elementary School — have enough space between the main entrance and a second set of doors to convert into anterooms. Johnson said that an enclosure could be built in the lobby of South Side Middle School, and that an office at Hewitt could be turned into a greeting room.
Robert Bartels, assistant superintendent of business and personnel, said that the Hewitt project, expected to cost no more than $25,000, would begin immediately, and that the district was meeting with architects to discuss designs and cost for the others, which he hopes can be completed by September. He added that security guards are expected to each cost about $25,000 per year, and that the district has begun the hiring process.
Bartels said that many of the security enhancements would fall under a section of the budget for capital improvements and repairs, which normally runs about $800,000. He increased that line to $1.5 million ahead of next week’s budget presentation, he said, to make room for proposed security measures discussed at the meeting. That number is not final, he added.
An additional $500,000 — part of the $900,000 offered to the district through the state’s Smart Schools Bond Act — is expected to go toward security, Bartels said, but those funds are not yet available.
The schools have bolstered security with procedures of their own in response to the latest mass murder. South Side High School Principal John Murphy, who sat at one of two tables alongside other district principals during the meeting, said there would be heightened security, which began on Monday.
Students must enter through the main entrance “by the flagpole” or the left colonnade entrance, Murphy said, where two security guards will check their student IDs. After first period begins, the main entrance will be the only one open to visitors, who will be buzzed in and must show a photo ID.
“We understand that there are inconveniences, but we believe that the ends justify the means under the present circumstances,” Murphy said, adding that any visitor who administrators do not recognize and who does not have a photo ID will not be allowed in.
Murphy said he had been making daily announcements about “subtle things that aren’t so subtle anymore,” such as reminding students not to allow anybody into the building, and to exit only through the two entrances they can use at the beginning of the day. Those who don’t follow those rules will be disciplined, he added.
“Students are relieved; they need time to be themselves again, and I think this affords them a level of security,” Murphy said. “They’ll be inconvenienced. . . .Get over it.”
Senior Katie Ralph said it might take a little longer to get into the school as security guards check IDs, but students understand why the measures are in place, and want to be safe. The Florida school shooting prompted her to help organize the school’s participation in the national walkout on March 14 to honor Parkland victims and to advocate for gun-control legislation, such as state Sen. Todd Kaminsky’s recent call to prohibit teachers from carrying firearms in the classroom.
“The first day back after Parkland, when I pulled up and saw my principal standing out there, my heart just broke, because we knew why he was there,” Ralph recalled. “. . . He was just looking at every single student, just trying to take in all their faces, and that motivated me more.”
Emma Wills-Umdenstock, a South Side junior, said she was home sick after the shooting, but received an email about the new security measures. “I’m just really glad that there’s been such an immediate response,” she said. “I feel safer in this school. I’m still scared — not personally for myself, but for schools across the country that don’t have the same support.”
Johnson discussed the district’s relationship with the Rockville Centre Police Department at length, emphasizing its response time of less than two minutes to each of the schools. Asked about his position on having guns in school for protection, he said, “We’re trying to keep danger out. If we bring it into the building, there’s always the possibility that gun can be used inappropriately.”
Noreen Leahy, assistant superintendent of pupil personnel services and special education, talked about keeping students connected with mental health services in the schools, noting the district’s 10 psychologists, seven social workers and nine counselors.
Liz Dion, the Board of Education’s vice president, reminded those who were there at the end of the three-hour meeting that school safety measures are just one facet of stopping gun violence. “We have to check our doors and we need to lock everything, and we have to make sure that everybody that’s here is supposed to be here,” Dion said, “but we have to look beyond that in our society, because one day, our kids leave.”