Keeping Shelter Island School safe

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Shelter Island School Superintendent Christine Finn remembers the horror when a shooter claimed the lives of 20 students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in November 2012.

She suspects she would have done exactly what the principal of that school did. Hearing noise in the corridor, she would have left her office to see what was causing the disturbance.

The Sandy Hook principal and a school psychologist reacted that way and were the first people the killer shot.

Today, in the wake of so many mass shootings since then and the 17 lives taken on February 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the Shelter Island superintendent knows her responsibility is to stay in her office with the door locked and alert the rest of the staff to lock down the school in line with practiced protocols.

But years ago, before there were so many school shootings, threats of violence weren’t taken as seriously, Ms. Finn said.

She remembers her own brush with a school lockdown when she worked as an assistant superintendent in the Herricks School District, her most recent assignment before coming to Shelter Island.

An alert was sounded, a SWAT team surrounded the building and she could hear helicopters overhead.

It turned out to be hoax, but was no less frightening.

The Shelter Island Board of Education has approved using grant money for a sophisticated surveillance system that, the board said, will be installed shortly.

Steps in place and those in the works include:
• Locked doors throughout the building with access through the front entrance by being buzzed into the building by an attendant at the front desk.
• Having visitors leave a photo ID with the attendant.
• Accompanying visitors to their destinations within the building.
• Implementing a key card system and changes to doors leading to the gym and FIT Center.
• Providing video surveillance of the lobby, hallways and all entrances.
• Providing IDs to all district employees.
• Adding more chaperones for after-school events.

Regular lockdown drills are held to ensure staff and students know how to respond to a possible threat and to identify any procedures that need to be tightened to maximize safety. The Shelter Island Police Department has been essential in assisting with lockdown drills and helping to assess their effectiveness, Ms. Finn said.

“The school takes any threats very seriously,” Police Chief Jim Read said, adding that there have been no significant threats that have required police intervention.

The surveillance cameras will help identify perpetrators of vandalism or, in the wake of a more serious incident, provide evidence. Whether they can stop the type of violence that occurred at Sandy Hook, Columbine or the many other mass shootings that have happened throughout the country, is unknown.

“All we can do is connect with the kids,” Ms. Finn said, meaning, she added, identifying students who seem isolated from their classmates or those who may be hurting because of problems at home or in school.

“The beauty of this place is everybody does know everybody,” Ms. Finn said.

It’s likely if there are family troubles or difficulties students are having with classmates at school, she’ll hear about it and be able to counsel an upset child.

“My staff cares deeply,” she said. “I know my teachers know what to do.”

Ms. Finn has been superintendent here for six months and said that, in many ways, it feels like she first walked into the building yesterday. But in other ways, it’s as if she has always been here.

“The community is very approachable,” Ms. Finn said.

Firearm facts
• As of the end of 2017, there were 79 Island residents who had obtained pistol licenses, according to the Shelter Island Police Department.

New York State laws are among the most strict in the nation when it comes to gun sales, with pistol licenses required, although no license is needed to purchase a shotgun or rifle except in New York City.

• Following Sandy Hook, the state passed the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act  (SAFE) banning all assault-style weapons except for those purchased before January 2013 and those considered antiques. Weapons purchased prior to the ban must be registered. The New York State Police report 44,160 assault weapons have been registered since the law took effect.

Fully automatic weapons are illegal, but bump stocks that can be used on semi-automatic rifles to enable them to fire more rapidly are legal.

• The state bans sales to those under the age of 21 unless they have been honorably discharged from the armed services. Applicants can’t have prior felony or serious offense convictions on their records and can’t have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.