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Phillips Avenue community petitions for return of relocated security guard

Students, parents and teachers at Phillips Avenue Elementary School are speaking out against the sudden relocation of a popular security guard at the Flanders school.

More than a dozen people, many waving signs, attended a Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, making an impassioned plea to bring Tim Crump back to their school.

Mr. Crump, a security guard, was recently reassigned to work at Riverhead Middle School, a change that parents say is upsetting to students and could leave the school in a vulnerable position.

“As a parent, it’s terrifying,” said PTO member Laura Niewadomski, who said that the school is now left without a male guard.

Ms. Niewadomski collected 675 signatures on an online petition to bring Mr. Crump back to Phillips Avenue and submitted it to the board at Tuesday’s meeting.

Several people cited safety concerns and urged the superintendent to rethink the decision. 

Susan Tocci of Flanders pointed out that the school is located within an economically disadvantaged area where crime is prevalent. She suggested that superintendent Augustine Tornatore’s unfamiliarity with the district may have been a factor in the decision.

Ms. Tocci said one advantage to having Mr. Crump at the school is that he lives in the community. “[He] knows every vehicle that pulls up, every parent, every aunt, every uncle. You’re making a mistake,” she said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Tornatore defended himself against Ms. Tocci’s remarks, arguing that he knows the area well. “I’ve been coming out to Riverhead since I was a little kid. I know these areas very well,” he said. “I also know that Southampton police do a phenomenal job and they are always available to protect the area across the Peconic River,” he said.

Mr. Tornatore also dispelled community claims that Mr. Crump is “checking students into” bathrooms at the middle school and said his duties include supervising lunch and hallways.

He cited recent “pressing issues” that district officials are trying to address at the secondary level that have made headlines, including a 14-year-old student recently sharing THC candy with friends at school. Police were also called to the high school several times last month as Narcan was used to revive two students in the span of a week.

Police have since confirmed that no fentanyl, illicit narcotics or alcohol were involved in those incidents.

Phillips Avenue students Elyse Rand and Noah Cuddihy helped rally in support of Mr. Crump. (Credit: Tara Smith)

Former PTO president Katrina Koplinka read several letters written by third- and fourth-graders aloud that detail what Mr. Crump meant to them.

“He keeps the door safe so no one can come in,” one student wrote.

Others said the decision has been disruptive to children already struggling to adapt from pandemic-related challenges over the last two years, arguing that his consistent presence is important to students.

“The students look forward to seeing him, saying hello and giving him a fist bump in the hallway,” said Kelly Rand, a mother of two students at Phillips Avenue. “To many of the students he is not only a security guard, but he is a figure of safety, authority, and respect,” she continued, noting that Mr. Crump has helped organize a food drive and even attended a drive-by birthday party for her son during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Jennifer Cook, who teaches third grade at the school, said he’s respected by students and staff alike and serves as a role model especially for students that lack a male figure at home.

“He treats everyone with kindness and respect, cheers students up when they have a bad day and holds them accountable for their actions when needed,” Ms. Cook said.

Mr. Crump attended the board meeting but declined to speak with a reporter afterward.

Terms within employment contracts for district employees like security guards include the possibility to be relocated to another school building at any time.

In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Tornatore said several members of the security team were reshuffled recently throughout the district. “We saw by the amount of people [at the meeting] that [Mr. Crump] has had such an impact on children and families,” Mr. Tornatore said. “It’s important to be able to provide that at the middle and high school level…we need to put our guards’ talents where they can make the biggest impact.”

He stressed that decisions weren’t easily made but does not believe the move has created a safety issue. Before Tuesday’s meeting concluded, he told parents that he may revisit the decision “once we feel that we have more stability for our students on all levels.”