Concerns Over Safety Aired at Sag Harbor School Forum

Lee Mandel, the CEO of IntraLogic Solutions, speaking at a forum about school safety at Pierson High School last week. Kathryn G. Menu photo

Twenty-five years ago, Kate Berkoski sat on the floor of the Sag Harbor Elementary School gymnasium as a third-grader. Today, she can be found in the same gym during the beloved Morning Program as a parent of a six-year-old, and also as the school’s reading specialist. But Ms. Berkoski knows much has changed over the course of the last two decades, and in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting that claimed the lives of 17 students and teachers, she joined over 50 residents last Thursday to express concerns about school safety, and ways the Sag Harbor School District should look at improving security.

“When I am thinking about this, I do think we are in good shape,” said Ms. Berkoski. “I see how these kids respond to lock down drills and they are really good. I think we have it down to a science, but when I think about what is going on, it’s very different from 25 years ago when I sat on that gym floor as a third-grader at Morning Program and nowadays.”

Was the district planning to prepare for the potential of an attack during Morning Program, when the entire school is gathered in one room, she asked. “Because the way I look at it now, we are sitting ducks in one room,” she said. “How do we get out? What do we do? I don’t need an answer right now. I just need to know we are thinking about that.”

Ms. Berkoski was one of more than a dozen speakers, many parents, at the forum, which included a panel of administrators, Lee Mandel, the CEO of IntraLogic Solutions — the firm that installed an updated security system in 2015 — as well as New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming and Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin McGuire.

“With the tragic moments in Florida we feel deeply for those families but it does raise our desire to keep our children ever so safe, leave us looking for vulnerabilities and look to strengthen our beautiful community in any way possible to keep our children safer,” said Superintendent Katy Graves. “Although Sag Harbor is a very special, child-centered place, we are not blinded to the fact that we too are vulnerable. If bad things can happen in those places, bad things can happen here.”

Ms. Graves walked the crowd through security features installed after a 2015 safety audit, including a number of new surveillance cameras, more secure vestibules at main school entrances, a card swipe entry system, a visitor management system, a lock down system for the elementary and middle-high school, accessible by either front desk or administrators with the click of one button, as well as the installation of communication boards that would allow for non-verbal communication between staff members during an emergency.

Mr. Mandel, who recently returned from Parkland, where he met with parents of the victims, police and school officials, specializes in security in the post-Columbine world.

“They wish they had technology like this,” said Mr. Mandel, praising the district for being proactive after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. “They are yearning for this. They don’t have the same resources we do here in New York between smart bonding and other funding resources. They are just now doing and making these changes.”

Mr. Mandel encouraged community members to use the state’s “See Something, Send Something” anonymous app as a method of reporting disturbing behavior, on social media or otherwise.

Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone and Pierson Middle-High School Principal Jeff Nichols discussed security staff, and the four to five lockdown drills students practice annually. Chief McGuire, also a parent of two children in the district, said he speaks with school officials weekly, and that this kind of planning does not just occur after tragedies but as an “every day” part of his job.

Mr. Thiele, for his part, said he would work to ensure more state funding to improve school security, but that he believed each district should have control over how they use those funds — spending he believes should be exempt from the state tax cap.

After hearing from the panelists, community members expressed their concerns. Diane Ghiotto called for stronger security outside the school buildings. “Why do we not have metal detectors in this school so a troubled child can’t bring an AR-15 into school and take off,” she asked.

On Monday, the Sag Harbor School Board authorized Ms. Graves to hire another security guard, which will give the district four, full-time guards to monitor both school buildings. Metal detectors, said Ms. Graves, are something being considered.

Parent Gretchen Comly asked for a single point of entry and exit at Sag Harbor Elementary School and asked the district to enable a door ajar program where administrators are notified if a door is open anywhere in the school. Following Parkland, all adults coming to Morning Program do have to use the main entrance, although children being dropped off can still use a side entrance to the gymnasium.

Parent Jill Collage said after school is “almost chaos” with children and adults coming and going unchecked. Events like Spirit Night also need more security, she said. While police are at any large event at the school, said Chief McGuire, he noted the East Hampton School District has a police officer, Ken Alversa, stationed at the school, providing not only a police presence, but also developing relationships with students.

Joan Dudley encouraged the board to consider the stress and emotional state of the children as they consider plans like metal detectors. “I hope when the school makes its decisions that they also bring in the mental health people into that conversation, because you really want to know how this impacts our kids emotionally,” she said.

Susan Lamontagne, a parent and member of the Sag Harbor School Board, encouraged a mental health forum, noting most school shootings are not by strangers, but rather by teen boys already in the community. “I hope we consider the prevention piece,” she said.

“I agree we have to worry about their mental health with all the protections around them, but not only my two daughters but their friends would feel so much more protected with a metal detector, with a security guard outside,” said Ms. Ghiotto. “That is my whole thing — this technology is great and it is fine and I am all for it, but we have to get to the shooter before he gets into the building.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Graves said administrators were meeting that day to begin synthesizing the comments at the forum, and the dozens that have come to the district in the form of phone calls and emails. Investigating a new entry system at Pierson is one thing the district is considering as in the immediate, she said. As for metal detectors, “there is nothing we are not considering,” she said. “We are putting everything on the table. It’s a balance of maintaining security but maintaining the feeling of Sag Harbor, which is safety, without it feeling like a prison.”