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Valley Stream residents raise security concerns over school for struggling teens

A Martin De Porres school for struggling teenagers opened at the site of the former Blessed Sacrament School, which closed in 2011 due to declining enrollment and had remained empty until September.
A Martin De Porres school for struggling teenagers opened at the site of the former Blessed Sacrament School, which closed in 2011 due to declining enrollment and had remained empty until September.
Andrew Hackmack/Herald

The arrival in September of a school for teenagers with behavioral and social issues at the former Blessed Sacrament School has prompted a backlash from the community, with residents expressing concerns about safety and security.

Since opening at its new Valley Stream location this fall, the school — one of two in the Martin De Porres Schools network — saw 20 911 calls in September due to fighting, according to school officials. The Blessed Sacrament School closed in 2011 because of declining attendance, and its building had remained vacant until now.

The regular police presence, coupled with a lack of information about the school’s opening, led to a wave of criticism, and as a result, Blessed Sacrament Church, which has leased out the attached school building to the nonprofit for three years, has called for a series of meetings with the public to address residents’ concerns, and to provide updates on efforts to shore up security at the site. The latest meeting took place on Nov. 6.

“We need to make up for the way we came into your neighborhood,” Martin De Porres Executive Director Joseph Trainor told the attendees, “and the concerns you bring to us, we’re going to show you how we address them . . . They might not be perfect, but we’re going to show you that we’re making progress.”

Martin De Porres is a state-funded private school for young adults ages 13 to 21 who, according to Trainor, due to behavioral, social or emotional issues have been transferred out of the public school system. The students’ former schools, he explained, lacked the specific special- and individualized-education resources they needed to succeed, and as a result these students were “languishing” in the public school setting. None of them, he said, were court-mandated to be there.

The more than two-dozen residents who attended the meeting, however, raised concerns about the students’ presence in the neighborhood, and what kind of supervision was in place, particularly at drop-off and dismissal times.

Some said they heard the students outside use profanity, or saw them looking at their phones, smoking cigarettes, wearing headphones and dancing to music as well as going into the 7-Eleven across Central Avenue to purchase food in the morning. Others asked pointed questions about procedures when students are found to have skipped school or wandered off.

“All we’re asking for is security,” resident Sherry Ahrens said.

There are 120 students currently enrolled at the school, Trainor reported, with 43 staff members. The highest-need students are placed in classes of six, with a teacher and two assistant teachers per class, according to Principal Kevin Reismiller.

Students entering the building are screened for weapons with metal detectors, and attendance officers account for each student, Reismiller said. If they skip school, their parents or guardians are notified, and if they are unaware of the students’ whereabouts, law enforcement is informed they are missing. Additionally, to address the issue of their presence at the 7-Eleven, Martin De Porres officials said monitors had been placed outside to walk with students to and from the store.

Not everyone at the meeting was as critical of the school. Jennifer Narby, whose home is adjacent to Blessed Sacrament, said officials there were responsive to her complaints, particularly regarding idling school buses on Rose Avenue during pick-up and drop-off. She suggested that some of the negative sentiments expressed at the meeting could be due to the fact that majority of students come from outside the neighborhood.

Trainor reported that 80 percent were originally from New York City schools, while the remainder came from Nassau County.

“I want to play devil’s advocate,” Narby said, “because everyone who has kids, a lot from this generation have emotional issues . . . You wouldn’t be able to tell that student from a Central [High School] kid, or a Memorial [Junior High School] kid . . . if you didn’t see them get off that bus.”

Despite a tumultuous opening in September, there are signs of a turnaround. Trainor reported that in October, the number of 911 calls to the school dropped to three, and his organization was bidding to hire private security guards to patrol outside the building. He acknowledged, however, that the limited resources the state provides his organization would impact the number of guards it could hire. Currently, he said, the school plans to hire two, but those plans are subject to change.

This elicited additional concerns from Valley Streamer and Nassau County Judge Robert Bogle. Both he and Trainor said that the Nassau County Police Department, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, had scheduled a security survey of the building. Although police have yet to confirm the survey, Bogle suggested that if the results indicate that the school needs additional guards, officials there would have to adapt.

“When the evaluation comes back by Homeland Security, they might not want just two security officers,” he said. “They might want as many as six. You’re going to be held to that standard, folks . . . It’s really going to have to be six if you want to be good neighbors. That’s just how it’s going to be.”

Much of the consternation from the public appeared to stem from the school’s sudden arrival in the neighborhood. Trainor acknowledged that the decision to use the Blessed Sacrament facilities was made at the last minute, with the final approval coming from the Diocese of Rockville Centre in late August. He apologized for the lack of announcement. The school was previously in Rockaway Park.

The Rev. Lawrence Onyegu, who came on as the church pastor in June, months after the decision to consider Blessed Sacrament as a potential host of the school, acknowledged that the reason the church allowed the school to use its facilities was simple: money.

“We need money to run this place,” Onyegu said.

Like many houses of worship in New York, Blessed Sacrament has struggled to stay afloat, and in the previous year, Onyegu said, the church had run an $80,000 deficit. Now, he said, rent from the school has relieved some of that pressure.

Despite the initial troubles, Trainor said that the number of disruptions should fall as the students become acclimated to their new environment, and that they might even become a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

“I understand the concerns,” he said, “and I do believe that if you give our kids an opportunity, you’ll meet them and realize they’re wonderful kids.”