District officials respond to pepper spray incident at Riverhead High School

After an altercation between two students at Riverhead High School Friday — the third day of the new school year — district officials reiterated that the behavior that led to the dispute “will not be tolerated.”

During the incident, one student sprayed another with pepper spray, according to a letter notifying families sent by Superintendent Augustine Tornatore.

Residue from the spray also compromised air quality in the hallway, affecting other students and security guards. Those who were impacted received medical treatment and the parents and guardians of affected students were notified.

“Upon the incident occurring, the Riverhead police were immediately contacted and are currently conducting an investigation. The student who used the pepper spray has been taken into police custody,” Mr. Tornatore said in the letter.

“The district prioritizes safety and security, and altercations of this nature will not be tolerated,” he wrote. “We will continue to work alongside the Riverhead Police Department throughout the investigation, and the two students in the altercation will face full disciplinary action in accordance with Riverhead High School’s code of conduct.”

On the same day, Riverhead High School principal Sean O’Hara also sent a letter to district families stating he is “deeply disappointed … in the behavior and actions that several of our students chose to engage in.”

“Verbal and/or physical altercations will not be tolerated under any circumstances,” he wrote. “Students who choose to engage in such behavior will face severe consequences in accordance with our Code of Character, Conduct and Support. In addition to consequences, students who violate our Code of Character, Conduct and Support also risk losing privileges such as participation in extracurricular activities, field trips, and special events.”

Mr. O’Hara emphasized that the district has many “amazing programs and opportunities … as well as resources and support staff available to help students resolve issues before they rise to an inappropriate level.”

In his letter, Mr. O’Hara included links to the Code of Character, Conduct and Support, Riverhead High School handbook and other important procedures the students are expected to follow while on school grounds including information on school ID cards, hallway etiquette and expectations and more.

Students and parents have been calling for more security at the school for months. On March 28, a Riverhead High School student was assaulted, robbed and stabbed on his way home by five individuals in ski masks armed with a knife. Three days later, a 14-year-old student was arrested after bringing more than a dozen .22 caliber bullets to school, an incident that prompted a lockdown that some parents said had terrified their children. On April 12, another RHS student, 15-year-old Preston Gamble, was shot off school grounds at Calverton Hills condominium complex and later transported to Riverhead’s Peconic Bay Medical Center by family members, where he was later pronounced dead. No arrests have been made and an investigation is ongoing. 

 Over the summer, the school installed 125 new cameras and updated the camera software. Other security measures the school has taken include access control devices at targeted entrances and exits throughout the district, as well as door sensors to prevent unauthorized building entrances and exits. The middle and high schools also are using ScholarChip, which Mr. Tornatore described as “a web-based school safety system, which means … we’ll have a better way of really knowing which students are in the buildings [at] what time, to help us really tighten up security.”