A RIverhead Police Department vehicle outside the high school in 2014. File photo: Peter Blasl

Students and parents in the Riverhead Central School District are asking administrators to reevaluate security measures after several recent incidents involving district students, including one where bullets were brought into the high school.

Connor Moos, a senior at the high school, told the Riverhead Board of Education last week that “many students have been concerned and worried about their safety throughout the school” since a student was arrested on March 31 for bringing loose bullets into the high school. Moos said he was able to speak to high school principal Sean O’Hara and Superintendent Augustine Tornatore about the concerns and “probe some solutions.”

“We are now exploring avenues in which we can improve and expand upon existing security measures, particularly with the protocols in place involving being required to present ID when entering the back of the school building,” Moos told the board.

The incident and several others that occurred off-campus, like the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Preston Gamble in his Calverton neighborhood and the attempted robbery of a student behind Harbor Freight Tools just outside of the high school campus — along with school shootings across the country like in Nashville, Tennessee — have renewed a sense of fear in some students and parents. 

Moos said in an interview after the meeting that he was off campus on a field trip during the bullet incident, but he received texts and phone calls from friends in the school when it was happening who were “scared for their lives.” 

“People were thinking about jumping out of the window because they wanted to get out of the building,” Moos said. “People were having mental breakdowns in the classroom.”

Another student, who was in the building during the incident and requested not to be identified by name, said nobody knew what was going on at first. “When we first were told about the ‘remain in place’ order everyone’s faces dropped and you could just see fear all around,” the student said. 

“Being in school and having to question where you would go or what you would do the second you heard a shot being fired is not something we should be having to think about,” the student said. “Although there was no weapon, the fear that I had just knowing the possibility of what could have happened is something that no student or adult should have to face.”

Moos said he was disappointed there wasn’t more communication between administrators and students and parents in the aftermath of the event. “It seems like it happened and we just forgot about it and are trying to start a new page.” He said students should have been more informed of mental health resources available in the school.

The incidents also caused parents to air their grievances to the school board at last week’s meeting, demanding the district implement more security measures.

“As far as I’m concerned, if physical safety does not exist, our kids cannot learn,” one parent, Monique Parsons said. 

District officials did not respond directly to parents’ concerns during the board meeting. In an interview with RiverheadLOCAL this week, Tornatore, O’Hara and Safety and Security Director Terry Culhane looked to reassure the community as to the safety of school buildings and combat what they said was misinformation about the district’s security protocols and response to the bullet incident.

“We take the safety and security of the children and the staff and the faculty and everybody that’s on school grounds — whether you’re a visitor or you’re an employee — very, very seriously,” Culhane said.

Parsons accused the district of mismanaging and minimizing the bullet situation by saying the building was put in a “hold-in-place” because “that terminology doesn’t exist in an active shooter training,” she said.

“Hold-in-place” — which is when movement is limited throughout the building, but classroom instruction continues — is one of five emergency responses used by the district, Culhane said. It is typically used during short-term emergencies. There was no threat of an active shooter inside the building, so a lockdown — where doors are locked and barricaded, lights shut off and students are kept quiet and out of sight of the door — was not necessary, Culhane said.

“We were coming up on a bell change, a period change. That [hold-in-place] enabled us to kind of keep things where they were, for an amount of time that we needed to do what we needed to do to declare the building safe,” O’Hara said. 

According to district officials, a bullet was found by a security guard who immediately brought it to the attention of Culhane, who was meeting with Riverhead Town Police at the high school. An investigation was opened to determine if the source of the bullet could be identified.

A short while later, a student brought a second bullet to the attention of security personnel, indicating a student, whom they did not know, gave it to them, district officials said. The district, with the assistance of police, determined there was no threat posed to students or faculty in the building. The district identified the student using security cameras and put the high school in a “hold-in-place” to assist with finding the student. All teachers were notified via their cell phones through the RAVE app, and a building-wide announcement was made by the principal; all local law enforcement was notified by the RAVE app, district officials said.

The student was located in the building and placed in custody by the Riverhead Police officer at the high school, district officials said. Additional bullets were found on the student, but it was also determined that no firearm was ever on school grounds. 

The “hold-in-place” was lifted and students proceeded to the ninth period. The building was placed on a “lockout” during the ninth period to allow for “more control” of people exiting and entering the building, O’Hara said. The lockout was lifted at the end of the school day, he said. 

District officials acknowledged in an interview that the lack of knowledge as to what a “hold-in-place” is may have contributed to the fear of some students in the moment. Students often practice lockdowns — which are active shooter drills — lockouts and fire drills, but do not drill for the “hold-in-place” procedure as often, O’Hara said.

“I think it needs to be more a part of our language when we drill,” O’Hara said.

Contrary to what some parents suggested at last week’s board meeting, the school district does have an emergency response plan, as required by state law, but the full plan is not made available to the general public due to sensitive security information in it. The plan is updated every year and shared with local law enforcement, Culhane said. 

Parson also said there should be a school resource officer — an armed police officer that works within schools — working in the middle school, the high school and elementary schools. Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller told her there was no school resource officer because the school district refused to split the cost, she said. 

Hegermiller confirmed Parson’s statement in an interview. He said there was an officer in the high school before the coronavirus pandemic, but when schools reopened after the shutdown, the officer was not put back in the school. 

Tornatore said there is an SRO in Phillips Avenue Elementary School and the officer is paid for in full by Southampton Town, where the school is located. He said the district would welcome officers if they are paid for by the police department, but not the district.

“So I’m extremely happy that we have that support [at Phillips Avenue]. And I would welcome that support with our other six buildings as well. I think that would be great,” Tornatore said.

Greg Wallace, president of the Riverhead Central Faculty Association, said the teachers union would support an SRO in the buildings if the cost is absorbed by the police department.

Tornatore said the district has prioritized increasing security within the district since he took office in 2021. Part of the proposed budget for next school year are increases to the district’s security budget, including a more than $220,000 increase for high school security personnel. The district also bolstered security this year by budgeting for upgrades to its cameras and door access technology in the high school and middle school. Culhane said district security has increased from 15 guards to 44 guards since he became head of the district’s security in 2018.

The district has also implemented several safety technologies beyond improving cameras and entrances. This includes the ShareIT app, where anybody from the faculty, students and families can share anonymous tips to security; GoGuardian, a digital software that monitors and flags potentially harmful internet activity; and vape detectors, which will alert the district to students’ vaping or making any abnormal sounds in bathrooms.

All faculty and staff also have access to the Rave Panic Button app, which allows them to call in any emergency situation and receive emergency alerts. “…[W]e’ve empowered every single employee in the district to activate a lockdown with the Rave app, every single one, from the cook in the kitchen, to a custodian, to a teacher, to a principal, to a security guard,” Culhane said. “Anybody can activate it.”

Another popular precaution used by schools that Riverhead does not have are metal detectors. Culhane said the district is “always exploring” that option and has been meeting with vendors, but said having to screen the high traffic of people coming into the school could present a problem. 

This week, the Suffolk Theater hosted active shooter incident response subject matter expert Donald Longo to speak on responding to active shooters. During his seminar, Long, a former Suffolk County Police sergeant, discussed “run, hide, fight” tactics, which are used by the FBI and endorsed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to respond to active shooter incidents. 

Longo said he offered his services to school districts after the 2018 Parkland school shooting, but school districts did not respond. He said many schools make the mistake of not teaching students and faculty to flee a school building when the opportunity arises, and that at times “lockdown” procedures can cause students to be “sitting ducks” for a shooter.

“Lockdown has its place, lockdown is an option. It should not be a mandatory order,” Longo said. 

“Schools need to incorporate and they need to be training their faculty and staff, and their students, ‘run, hide, fight.’ If you can get out, then get out,” Longo said.

“Our procedures are lockdown, stay safe until a law enforcement official or first responder tells you it’s safe,” Culhane said when asked whether the district uses “run, hide, right” tactics. “Obviously, if somebody’s trapped in a hallway, I wouldn’t expect them to just stand there, I’d expect them to run, hide or fight. We do teach ‘run, hide, fight’ [to teachers] if a room is breached, but only in that instance.” 

A lockdown during a school shooting is essentially the “hide” element of a “run, hide, fight” response, according to the New York State School Violence Resource Guide. 

Culhane said if students and teachers would be taught to exit the building in an active shooter situation, it could create a bottleneck at different exits that would be ineffective at evacuating students and possibly put students in danger of being trampled. It could also create an opportunity for the shooter to kill more people, he said.

Administrators said they are also in communication with the Riverhead Police Department to see if there could be increased law enforcement presence near school district campuses. 

“We have no control on what happens outside of the seven buildings, we have zero control,” Tornatore said. “But we do everything we can within the buildings, to protect our students and staff as best as we can.”

Moos, the student representative, suggested district representatives field more questions and concerns related to safety during the Parent Administration Connection meetings on May 3. The meetings are at 11:30 a.m. through Google Meet (a link will be sent to parents and guardians) and at 6 p.m. at the high school auditorium. 

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com