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Weapons in schools prompt response from Riverhead parents

After recent incidents involving reports of weapons on school grounds, security was the hot topic at Tuesday’s Riverhead Board of Education meeting. About 60 people attended and five parents spoke publicly about their concerns.

The complaints follow incidents over the last three weeks in which a BB gun was found in a Riverhead High School student’s backpack, an airsoft gun was found in a student’s bag at the middle school and an altercation involving three students outside the high school prompted one of them to pull out a knife.

No injuries were reported in any of the incidents.

At the meeting, school board member Laurie Downs presented a report from the district’s health and safety committee. 

She said that earlier this year, the board hired 10 permanent security guards who have been trained in the Stop the Bleed program, a non-profit initiative that teaches individuals about bleeding emergencies. 

Ms. Downs said the guards also received training from the Riverhead and Southold police departments and information on gang awareness from the Suffolk County Probation Office.

District administrators have been trained in DLA Piper Rapid Response, a phone application used to summon emergency help, which has not yet been rolled out in the district, she said. The district also plans to train all school bus drivers and monitors to recognize suspicious activity. 

“The drivers serve as extra eyes to report on suspicious activity,” Ms. Downs said. 

Lastly, she said, the Southampton Town Police Department assigned four school resource officers to Phillips Avenue Elementary, intended to promote a safe school environment.

Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said that recently appointed director of security Terry Culhane will give a presentation at the Dec. 11 meeting on security updates in the district.

“To those parents who are here and concerned about security, I encourage you to come back and we’re always open to your feedback,” Dr. Hernandez said. 

She also recognized Mr. Culhane’s efforts to enhance security in the district. 

“He’s taken on a Herculean task in terms of being in charge of security,” the superintendent said. “He’s doing an incredible job.” 

Despite the formal update scheduled for the next meeting, community members continued to express concerns.

Former school board member Amelia Lantz, who resigned in June 2017, read an excerpt from a statement the district released to parents after the knife incident.

“ ‘Please be assured that our safety and the safety of our students and staff is the highest priority,’ ” she read. “Please explain to me and this community what ‘the highest priority’ means to you?” 

Ms. Downs answered: “I can’t speak for the rest of the board but I don’t care how many thousands of dollars it costs to make these children safe — we should spend it. These are our children, these are our staff.”

Then, board president Susan Koukounas highlighted the board’s efforts to address the safety issues.

“If you were listening this whole meeting, we had a health and safety report, we settled an SRO contract, we hired 10 new security guards, we offer more professional development,” Ms. Koukounas said. “We’re continually reassessing and addressing new needs of our students.” 

Ms. Lantz then asked the board, “What is the opposition to metal detectors in this school?” 

Vice president Christopher Dorr replied by saying most students don’t want metal detectors in their schools. 

“They don’t want to feel like they’re coming into a prison. They want to feel like they’re coming into a school,” Mr. Dorr said. “How are they supposed to get to class quickly when they have to take their shoes and belts off?”

Yolanda Thompson, who ran for the school board in 2017, said that while the students’ opinions on metal detectors are important, only the board and parents are responsible for their implementation.

“If I wanted my child to make that decision, he would be sitting in your seat,” she said. “My child does not tell me how to keep him safe. I do that.”

She added that parents and administrators need to form close relationships with students to avoid violent future conflicts. 

“I don’t want my daughter, in middle school, to feel like she’s going to prison when she goes to high school next year,” Ms. Thompson said.

Allyson Matwey of Wading River said she is “not a fan” of metal detectors.

“You think we’re having an exodus now, wait till you put metal detectors in the school. People are going to be up in arms; no one’s going to want to come to the community.” 

Ms. Matwey, who works in special education, said she believes the students who are bringing weapons to school haven’t been given the attention they need. The solution, she feels, is to create a more inclusionary environment for these kids and consider students’ entire education from elementary to high school. 

“When my kids went to Riley Avenue, there was no inclusion teacher, there was no special education teacher in the classroom,” she said. “These kids are bringing a knife or a gun to school because they haven’t gotten the school setting that they need.”

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Photo caption: At the Nov. 27 Riverhead school board meeting, Amelia Lantz expressed her desire to implement metal detectors throughout the district. (Kate Nalepinski photo)