With school districts across Long Island reviewing security procedures following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, some experts feel continual communication coupled with using technology are key to keeping students safe.
On Wednesday, more than 90 school officials, including representatives from Elwood School District, and security experts gathered at a forum at the Hilton Long Island in Melville to discuss security measures and best practices related to school districts.
Michael Balboni, former state senator and head of the Homeland Security Department for New York, stressed the importance of communication and innovation.
"The strategies we adopt must be scalable, must be sustainable, must be flexible and must be cost-effective within the resources we have. There are fiscal realities to our school systems," he said.
While financial constraints are an issue for school districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties, security experts feel the Sandy Hook incident should provide motivation for local districts to review security plans.
"If you haven't done a safety audit in quite some time, now is the time to do it," said Tom Rogers, superintendent of Nassau BOCES.
Don Flynn, a retired New York City police officer who now serves as a school safety and security officer, said school districts should make sure all personnel from the superintendent to grounds workers, custodians and the cafeteria staff have a clear understanding of security measures.
"It's not the job of solely a superintendent. We have to make sure everyone is part of the plan. Sometimes we fall short," he said. "The training is critical."
He encouraged districts to review their security plans regularly and drill them with staff prior to school opening. Flynn also suggested holding fire drills and evacuation drills early in the year with students.
Balboni and David Antar, president of A+ Security and Technology Solutions, said school district's security plans should start with establishing a perimeter around their buildings. One way to accomplish this is by installing a security booth in a building's parking lot entrance, which can double as a secondary command post in case of a building evacuation.
Antar said some school districts have license plate recognition software that identifies parents and contractors' vehicles.
He said the next step for schools should be installing video surveillance along the perimeter of the building and the interior of the building. Antar said a high percentage of Long Island school districts have cameras, but either not enough or the wrong type.
"Sometimes we see four cameras in a building and it's not enough, or they have analog cameras, and there's no way to discern who the person is," Antar said.
Flynn said Nassau BOCES plans to start offering its partner schools centralized monitoring including detecting and surveillance monitoring.
"Districts with access to the Internet can have them monitored from a central location," he said. "We think we can do this monitoring very inexpensively because we do have a central location and it creates access to funding streams that exist through the state from BOCES."
Benefits of centralized monitoring and surveillance of schools would include ability to work closely with local police departments in case of a threat, providing remote access to cameras and a floor plan layout that would speed police response, Flynn said.
Other security options suggested included student ID cards, a visitor management system, including check-in with background checks, having access control to a building by being able to electronically lock doors and placing duress alarms in each classroom.
Alan Groveman, superintendent of Connetquot Central School District, said his district implemented many of these procedures after a Connetquot student’s plot to shoot administrators, teachers and students was discovered.
While technology is important, he emphasized constant vigilance and action.
"This is about attitude. It's about being aware that people are the threat. It's not a car bomb, not a gun or a canister of mace" Groveman said.
Flynn said mental health issues play a huge role in security as only approximately one-in-five students who needs help gets served, the others get suboptimal psychological assistance.
Given the complexity of issues at work, school administrators were encouraged to look at their districts to take appropriate action. Sayville Public Schools has consulted with FBI experts, while Riverhead Central School District has a security guard in each building.
"There is no one size fits all. Find what works in your community," Balboni suggested.