With educators across the country evaluating safety procedures after the recent mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., Lynbrook School District officials sent a letter to the State Education Department seeking to expedite hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding that the district should have been awarded last spring for security initiatives — but was not.
Superintendent Dr. Melissa Burak confirmed that she wrote a letter to MaryEllen Elia, the department’s commissioner, on Feb. 16, two days after 17 people were killed and 14 others were wounded in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
In 2014, New York voters approved a $2 billion Smart School Bond Act, a plan to improve educational technology and security infrastructure in schools across the state. Based on the vote, the Education Department was to allocate nearly $893,000 to Lynbrook, to enhance security measures, but the district has yet to receive the funds. The bond covers projects that are different than the ones included in the district’s $28.9 million bond proposal, which was approved by voters on Oct. 3.
“The projects proposed in our smart bond submission would further strengthen our safety plans,” Burak said. “So we would like the plans approved soon in order to move forward in our safety planning process.”
An intensive review
In an email to the Herald, state education representatives said the smart schools investment plan for Lynbrook was going through an “intensive internal review by the staff of the Smart Schools Review Board Members,” which works to ensure that the plans are reasonable, consistent with the requirements of the law and eligible for tax-exempt financing. Often, they said, plans need to be revised and resubmitted by districts when inconsistencies are found. According to the Education Department’s website, Lynbrook is now in the “expenditure review” phase of evaluation, but there is no timetable for approval. District offiicals said they have still not been contacted by the department, almost a year after plans were submitted.
The Lynbrook Board of Education voted to adopt the final version of its smart bond investment plan at its meeting on Dec. 14, 2016. The evening included a presentation by Dr. Paul Lynch, the district’s assistant superintendent of finance, operations and information systems, who offered information on the planned projects and a timeline for their completion.
According to the presentation, the allocated funds could be used to cover:
—Installation of high-speed broadband or wireless connectivity for the school.
—Equipment and devices for technology education.
—Enhancement and modernization of facilities to accommodate pre-kindergarten programs.
—Enhancement of facilities to replace classroom trailers.
—Installation of high-tech security features in school buildings.
Burak said that the major projects for Lynbrook focused on installing security vestibules, cameras and other safety-related initiatives.
In December 2014, the district’s Health and Safety Committee began brainstorming sessions, and in the spring of 2015, its Office of Information, Technology and Facilities consulted with the district architect to develop a plan for Lynbrook. District officials then consulted with the Health and Safety Committee for a year, and in April 2016, the committee approved the project’s scope.
Letters of intent for the projects from school officials were approved by the State Education Department in August 2016, and a preliminary plan was approved by the HSC that September. In October 2016, the preliminary smart bond plan was posted for public comment, and it was adopted after a public hearing that November.
“Our plans were submitted on March 2, 2017,” Burak said. “In light of the recent tragedy in Parkland, Fla., we hope the state will move swiftly to get our plans approved.”
According to the timeline mapped out by Lynch, installation of a security network was scheduled to begin last spring, when plans for a security vestibule were also to be sent to the Education Department. Security devices were expected to be installed by last fall or in the spring this year, a new security network infrastructure was to be completed by this summer, and construction of the vestibule was slated to be completed by the summer of 2019.
On Feb. 16, State Assemblyman Brian Curran, a Republican from Lynbrook, also wrote a letter to Elia about the issue, inquiring about the status of the proposal.
“Since part of Lynbrook’s proposal includes recommendations on the implementation of security systems at various schools, I believe that their proposal should take priority and an expedited review, so that the safety of children and faculty is not jeopardized,” the letter read.
Curran told the Herald that he was prompted to reach out to Elia after a number of district parents expressed concern over safety measures. He added that the district’s inquiries about the progress of the proposal “have not been adequately responded to” by the Education Department. State Sen. Todd Kaminsky has also joined the effort to expedite the funding.
Keeping schools safe
In the wake of the Florida tragedy, Burak wrote a letter to parents of students on Feb. 16 to reassure them about the district’s protocols.
“The safety and well-being of our students in the Lynbrook Public Schools is of paramount importance,” Burak wrote. “We often practice drills, using varying scenarios, to prepare students and faculty for what we hope will never happen in Lynbrook. Safety and security planning is an ongoing process, and our processes and procedures are reviewed and updated as needed.”
Lynbrook was ranked the seventh-safest district in the state in a poll by Niche.com last month, and was one of 26 Long Island districts to appear on the list.
Burak noted that the district has a support staff on hand for students struggling after the Florida shooting. She also said it has strict protocols for anyone outside the school who tries to enter the buildings, and works closely with local law enforcement agencies to ensure that the district is better able to anticipate emergency situations.
Similarly, East Rockaway Superintendent Lisa Ruiz sent out a letter to families on Feb. 16 in response to the tragedy, which reviewed the school’s safety procedures. Ruiz said that the district is proactive when it comes to emergency planning and security, and conducts emergency drills throughout the year with the aid of the Nassau County Police Department’s 4th Precinct.
“After each drill, our safety teams debrief and make recommendations for improvements in our procedures and response,” Ruiz wrote. “As a district, we remain dedicated in our effort to protect our students and staff.” She added that mental health professionals and guidance counselors were also made available to speak with any students.
Though the schools were in winter recess last week, the protocols were put to use when a student made an unspecified threat on social media. The police were notified, a thorough investigation was conducted, and the threat was deemed not credible. Ruiz sent out a letter on Feb. 24 informing parents of the threat, and said that because it was a matter of student privacy and the subject of a police investigation, she could not specify details.
“The threat was not directly targeted toward the school nor toward any of our students,” Ruiz wrote, “and at no time was anyone in any danger.” She added that “proper disciplinary action” was taken against the student.