By Cece Cruz and Nicholas Wurm
The Port Jefferson School District announced new agreements January 30 to allow Port Jefferson Village code patrols on school grounds, and connect its security cameras to the Suffolk County Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center.
The Center gives officers better situational awareness when responding to acts of violence on school properties, providing them with information such as property layouts and live camera feeds, in real time, at police headquarters in Yaphank, NY. Port Jefferson became the 28th school district to grant access to police as part of the “Sharing to Help Access Remote Entry” (S.H.A.R.E.) initiative.
“I became concerned [with school security], even before Columbine, with the potential threat of an active shooter in Suffolk County,” Chief of Department, and architect of the Real Time Crime Center, Stuart Cameron, said. “My initial work was to try and better prepare the SWAT team to respond to that, but subsequently segued into working with the schools to prevent it from happening.” Cameron is a 35-year veteran of the department.
After learning about restrictions barring all but security guards and Suffolk County police from district properties, unless authorized in writing, during her 2019 re-election campaign, Port Jefferson Village Trustee Kathianne Snaden sought to reach an agreement with schools to bridge jurisdictions. Port Jefferson’s school board attempted to bolster security in 2018 with a motion to allow code patrols, but needed an inter-municipal agreement (IMA) with the village under state law. Three months after her election, Snaden began working with the district to craft an agreement.
“What if there was an emergency or active shooter situation?” Snaden said. “Suffolk County [police] could be 10, 20 minutes away when our code enforcement is right here, seconds away. Every second counts in that kind of circumstance.”
Both agreements passed unanimously, with no public comments, at the school board’s December 10, 2019 meeting. Snaden reportedly read comments on social media saying parents didn’t need code enforcement officers harassing their kids, but said she believed people were misinterpreting the agreements. Under the IMA, village code officers can only enter schools if necessary and are primarily there as a deterrent to any issues that may arise, Snaden said.
Village resident, Jennifer Testa, said she fully supported the code patrols. Testa, whose daughter attends Port Jefferson Middle School, didn’t know code officers weren’t allowed on campus until the agreement was announced. “I was very happy when I found out. I know the village has a good working relationship with the police department. I think it’s all very positive,” she said.
Port Jefferson Superintendent Jessica Schmettan reported comments from her meetings with other Suffolk superintendents concerning whether or not police would be actively monitoring the schools, or using the cameras to collect evidence. While helping to draft her district’s agreement, Shmettan made privacy of staff and students a priority. “We were very specific. The only time Suffolk could actually get into the cameras was when it was triggered by an emergency response from the superintendent or the designee,” she said.
Port Jefferson is not the first area district to partner with Suffolk County police. Two towns away, in Port Jefferson Station, Comsewogue School District is also involved with the S.H.A.R.E. initiative. Although John Swenning, Comsewogue school board president, was not personally involved in the decision, it has his full support.
“It’s one of those things when it comes to security — you want to be well prepared, but hope you never need it,” he said.
One teacher at Middle Country School District’s Newfield High School believes the initiatives make sense. “As both a parent and a teacher, I would want the police to have access to any means necessary in order to handle situations swiftly and safely,” Sandra Schmitt-Harvey said. The district’s website touts a strong relationship with Suffolk County police as part of its security measures.
Suffolk County is home to about 1.5 million people, with 65 school districts for approximately 260,000 students. Chief of Department Cameron praised the county for its school security, but thinks it can always get better. “I’ve seen tremendous strides — but excellence is not an end state, excellence is an endeavor,” he said.