Parents debate arming security guards in SWR schools

01/11/2013 4:50 PM |

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Parent and co-president of SWR SEPTA Mike Sanchez speaks at Thursday night’s meeting.

The question of whether to arm security guards at Shoreham-Wading River schools was the main topic of discussion at a special school board meeting Thursday night in the high school library.

Residents, administrators and faculty members were all called to the open forum to  share ideas on how to improve district security in the district in the wake of last month’s Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

The meeting, attended by nearly 50 residents and which lasted two hours, began with an update on security changes made in the district.

Superintendent Steven Cohen told those in attendance there are unarmed security guards in every school in the district who all have previous security or law enforcement experience and are certified by the state.

The district is in the process of hiring two more security guards, he added. Four of the six guards are full-time employees while the remaining two are part-timers.

Since the shooting, and immediate concerns that some parents raised at a school board meeting that followed, buzzer systems, security cameras and auto-locking doors have been installed at all district elementary schools, Mr. Cohen said. The middle school and high school doors automatically lock, but do not have buzzer systems or cameras yet, officials said. Those are in the process of being purchased and installed.

Door monitors are working at each school to check who comes in and out of the building, Mr. Cohen said.

The money for the security upgrades is coming out of reallocated funds from the district’s maintenance operating budget, said assistant superintendent of finance Glenn Arcuri.

Mr. Cohen said the district will look into installing security vestibules at local schools over the summer.

But while district residents praised the board for taking steps to improve safety at district schools, many had further concerns and suggestions for the board to look into.

Several parents expressed concern that the door monitors were not doing their jobs correctly, as some parents and friends claimed they were let recently into the school immediately without having their identification checked.

School board president William McGrath said the district would work on creating a uniform policy for all door guards to follow, but stressed that parents who see security issues should immediately tell the school principal so they can address the problem.

Beyond security measures, Mr. McGrath said if a parent or student notices something strange or unusual about the behavior of another individual, notify school officials.

“You walk into the school building, no one asks for your ID, say something,” he said. “The time for complacency has passed.”

Dawn Esser, a Shoreham-Wading River graduate and district mother, expressed concerned about unlocked doors and lax security at before- and after-care programs.

The superintendent said he knew of perceived holes in security and said officials were working on how to hire the additional four or five full-time security officers to staff the school before and after the regular school day.

“We have not worked out with the board how many security guards we should be hiring right now,” Mr.. Cohen said, “and that’s one of the details that has to be worked out.”

Chris Zukowski, a district resident and wife of school board member John Zukowski, said the limitations of the state’s tax levy cap will make it difficult for school officials to spend significant money on security, even though many residents have stated they would support the changes.

But the most discussed topic at the meeting was the school’s security guards and whether or not they should be armed. Many parents said they agreed with suggestions made by the National Rifle Association that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

“It may offend people, but it’s the only thing that’s going to stop an armed intruder,” said Wading River resident Nikko Lavey. Mr. Lavey said the board should not be concerned with cost, since the need is so essential.

The discussion came just hours after news reports that a student at a California high school shot another student with a shotgun. The student was reportedly taken into custody after a “campus supervisor” convinced the teenager to put his gun down.

Other parents agreed with Mr. Lavey that armed security, whether those are district employees, volunteers or on-duty police officers, are the answer.

“With every bad guy, [you] need a good guy with a gun,” said Toni Morell, a Wading River parent who pushed for having police patrol the district’s campuses. “I’m sorry, but I feel as though having a security guard there would be wonderful, but in all truthfulness unless there is someone armed there I still do not feel safe.”

Other parents said they would oppose putting armed guards in district schools, as did Emma Stoll, a Shoreham-Wading River High School senior and non-voting member of the school board.

She would feel less safe with an armed security guard in the school, she said.

“I know some parents are saying that they would feel more safe, but they’re not the ones in the school.” Ms. Stoll said. “I don’t think that bringing more guns into the school is going to make me more safe.”

Mike Sanchez, a co-president of the SWR Special Education Parent Teacher Association and police officer, said he would happy to speak to students about gun safety to calm their fears of having armed officers in the school.

Communication between parents, students and teachers about safety will be the key to protecting SWR schools, Mr. Sanchez said.

Board members agreed the issue of armed security will need to be addressed.

The topic of armed security or police would likely be brought up at another security open forum when government and police representatives could attend, officials said.

But some issues, such as hiring more town or county police officers to patrol the area, are beyond what the school board can do, Mr. McGrath said, urging residents to come together and speak out.

“The things that are beyond the scope of what we can do is when we all as citizens of our town, our county, and our state need to let others know that it has to go beyond just our problem,” he said.

psquire@timesreview.com