On Thursday evening, Superintendent Ken Bossert stood in the Port Jefferson High School auditorium and grimly explained to a gathering of community members why they had come together that evening.
“Sandy Hook is the 9/11 for schools,” Bossert told the crowd during the public meeting on school safety. “It changed everything.”
In the moments after they first heard that a lone gunman entered a Sandy Hook Elementary school building carrying multiple firearms - including an assault rifle - killing 20 children and six adults, the world changed for parents and educators alike.
Across Long Island, the reaction from communities has been swift, reevaluating security protocols and increasing the protection school districts provide for their children in the days following the attacks.
Costs of security upgrades
The price tag for changes proposed by the administration at Port Jefferson comes in at about $150,0000. Like other districts, Port Jefferson has found the money for improvements in protection for its students – even after one of the most contentious school budget seasons in recent memory – in reserves and unspent funds.
For a breakdown of the new security proposals click here.
Bossert said that the benefits outweigh the costs in security improvements but cautioned people that the money did not appear out of thin air.
“I don’t want the to community to think we suddenly have $150,000 we didn’t have before,” he said.
The administration is proposing that the money come from the school’s Suffolk County Tax Act Reserve as a one-time expense for 2012-13. Additional expenses, like salaries for additional security guards, would then be included in 2013-14 budget.
Closing school campus for seniors
The discussion then turned to an issue that brought many students out that night: closing the campus to seniors who leave school grounds during their lunch period. This year, with adjustments in class schedules, Bossert said that about 15 seniors leave for lunch during each of four different periods.
Click here to read our initial story about the proposal to close the campus and school board member opinions on the subject.
In reviewing security, the board of education asked the administration to look at the policy of an open campus, one that Bossert called a “long standing tradition in Port Jefferson.”
He explained that the trend over the last ten years or so at many high schools is to close their campuses.
“It’s not a decision the board has taken lightly,” Bossert said pointing out that the students at the meeting that night were able to take part in a democratic process and have their voices heard on an issue that affects them directly.
He also stressed that the reason for closing the campus was not to punish students for wrong-doing but to alleviate complications tracking the students’ comings and goings for four of nine class periods, tying up the security department for a good portion of the day.
He said it was very difficult determining who belongs outside and who does not. If campus was closed, it would make the job very simple.
“No student belongs outside,” he said.
Minimizing risk was the most important point, according to Bossert.
“Parents in the room agree,” he said. “We believe our job is to minimize risk.”
Students oppose a closed campus
Almost every student gathered in the auditorium came to voice their displeasure that the administration and the board were considering closing the campus.
Mairead Swords, a junior, is looking forward to next year when she can leave campus during her lunch break.
“We don’t go out of a five-mile radius,” she told Patch before the meeting.
Jesse Fallon, another junior, echoed her statement.
“Our school is in a town,” he said. “Forty minutes is not a lot of time to do anything. Most grab food and come back.”
Many students assumed that the issue parents and administrators had was in the danger of having students driving during school hours.
“We haven’t had one problem this year,” Senior Justin Jones said in the audience before the meeting.
Senior Class President Gregory Klesaris spoke at the microphone opening up a session for public comment and questions for Bossert. Klesaris said that students believed that a closed campus would not significantly impact the safety of the school.
“The value of the open campus is greater than a sandwich and iced tea,” he said.
If the issue was accounting for students, Klesaris pointed out that last year the school had 40 to 50 seniors going out for lunch at one time. Changes in scheduling meant only 10 or so students left the building each period.
He called it “more manageable” and said that a proposed one-door policy “would further simplify the process.” He hoped that the policy would be evaluated accordingly.
Supporting Klesaris’ position, Student Council Vice President Gabe Davis said that part of the school experience was developing children into mature responsible adults. Davis said that having an open campus requires students to make decisions about “where we go and promptly returning.”
“We understand open campus is a privilege not a right but one we worked hard to earn,” he said. The decision to close the campus is one the students strongly oppose, according to Davis. “On the grounds it was put forth hastily and without sufficient evidence.”
Parents and community members split on decision
Former Board of Education member Lauren Hubbard complimented the students for their statements.
“What an amazing articulate couple of seniors,” she said. “I think they really nailed it. I second their position.”
Hubbard, a parent of a ninth grade student said that there was more to the issue than keeping kids safe. She described one senior – now a student at Stony Brook University - who spent his lunch hour working to save money for college.
“We don’t want to coddle them and then throw them to the world,” she said.
Arnold Lustig, who told audience members that his daughter was killed in a driving accident 25 years ago, said he supported closing the school grounds.
“I feel very strongly that the campus should be closed,” he said. “I hope that the board comes to the decision even though it may be unpopular in the interest of saving lives and security.”
It’s about protecting students
Bossert reiterated that closing the campus “gives us the ability to observe who belongs in the school and who does not belong on the grounds.” It was not necessarily about driving safety.
“This recommendation is not about punishing seniors,” he said. He also said ideas are being discussed as alternatives to an open campus to “make staying in more palliative.” Though he did not discuss what those alternatives were yet.
Residents spoke about school safety and for the most part were split on the issue. Some pleaded with the board to keep the campus open, while others were concerned about safety.
Click here to tell us if you think the new security proposals will make Port Jefferson schools safer.
Resident and Village Chief Constable Wally Tomaszewski spoke at the meeting, addressing his concerns about the open campus.
“What I see on the street and my men see on the street, we observe many things,” he said. Within a quarter mile of the school, Tomaszewski said there were a rash of larcenies and burglaries.
“A lot of burglars carry backpacks but so do students,” he said, “You don’t want to infringe on people’s right but we have an obligation to the community.”
Code officers have at times stopped and questioned kids in the village. A closed campus works to benefit of students when things happen in neighborhoods around the school, according to Tomaszewski.
“Kids can say, ‘I was in school,’” he said.