A North High School student was arrested for threatening to shoot students and staff at the school on Feb. 16. On March 1, schools in Valley Stream learned of a threat from Queens that was circulating on Snapchat. Four days later, a student at South High School posted a sticky note threatening harm to students and staff at the school.
The number and nature of these threats worried parents and students, who expressed their concerns at a Valley Stream Central High School District Board of Education work session on March 6.
One of the main concerns that parents spoke of was the district’s lack of communication. According to Carolyn Torres, the mother of a South High School student, her son found out about the Snapchat threat after he arrived at school on March 5, the day listed on the social media platform. Torres said she didn’t believe the danger was real, but she still went to the school, where she saw other parents picking up their children.
“There was no communication, none, zero,” Torres said. “There was no one there to talk to us.”
That lack of communication, she and other parents said, resulted in more than 650 students being picked up early from school on March 5.
At the board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Bill Heidenreich acknowledged that he failed to keep the community informed. “We, or I, as the superintendent, need to do a better job in communicating,” he said. “The old way — and by the old way I mean what we did in January — is very different than what we do post-Feb. 14, and that’s a beat that I missed, and I recognize that, and I accept responsibility for that.”
Heidenreich qualified this admission by saying he did not send out information instantaneously because he wanted police to vet the threat first. “When we communicate information to the community, we have an obligation that it’s accurate and that it’s vetted and that we’re providing people with the right information,” he said.
Still, South parent Toni Holder said she thought the district should have said something. “If we had heard there were threats and children were in the school and were safe, it would’ve gone a long way,” she said at the meeting.
More security needed?
Parents and students also expressed their concerns about the district’s security in case of a real emergency, like the school shooting that claimed the lives or 17 people in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14.
“Negligence is the failure to do what a prudent person would do in the same or similar circumstances,” Chrissy O’Toole, a Memorial Junior High School parent, said. “In this case, we’re not talking about a person; rather, we’re talking about our school district. We’re talking about the safety of our children on a daily basis.”
O’Toole continued to speak about the policy of leaving doors unlocked at Memorial and at South. “Would a prudent person lock their doors? I would say a prudent person would be sure to lock their doors,” she said. “It is not unreasonable to request that the front door of Memorial be locked, that a buzzer and intercom system be installed, and a security monitor be positioned at the front desk.”
At South High School, the security guard is positioned around the corner from the school’s entrance, according to Holder. “I don’t understand. Anyone can walk into South, and what’s there? The gym,” said Holder. “Where are the most children? The gym.”
Other parents said that at all three high schools, IDs are not checked when students re-enter the building from their lunch breaks. A North High School teacher, who declined to give his name, also told the Herald that he heard about a “random woman” walking around the school.
Students from South High School also said that teachers don’t know where to exit the building in case of a fire. “Teachers are instructed, according to the fire safety protocol, to go down to administrators’ offices or call down to administrators’ offices, and not call 911 directly,” said Nathalie Melo, a junior at South High. “This is on the protocol hanging on a piece of paper hanging in every classroom at South High School. I’m hoping that now that can be changed with communication.”
But Maureen Henry, the principal of South High School, denied those claims. “That is absolutely untrue,” she told the Herald. She said that the teachers have training sessions on how to respond in case of fire and have emergency evacuation routes posted in their classrooms as well. Henry also denied that doors to the buildings were unlocked. “Every door is locked,” she said.
At the end of the meeting, Heidenreich said he would discuss safety suggestions with the Board of Education. He also said that members of the Nassau County Police Department and of the Department of Homeland Security would be auditing the schools’ security the week of March 19.
Timothy Denton contributed to this story.