School Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez File photo: Denise Civiletti

The sound of gunshots in the halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month continue to echo in school buildings across the nation, including Riverhead, where school district and law enforcement officials grapple with ways to best prepare for active shooter situations and best protect students and staff.

“It’s difficult to hear and it’s difficult for me to say these things at board meetings,” Riverhead Superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez said last night. “Unfortunately it’s the reality we live in.”

Henriquez said she wants a school resource officer from the Riverhead Police Department in district schools and the school board is behind the idea “100 percent.”

Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said this morning the topic of an SRO was discussed at a recent roundtable discussion and there was general agreement it is needed.

“We can definitely see the need for it in the world that we live in,” Jens-Smith said. The town and the district are trying to work out the details of cost-sharing for an SRO. Jens-Smith said she is confident there will be consensus on “how to get this done.”

Henriquez said last night the Riverhead Police Department has been very supportive of the district and has deployed extra patrols and had a bigger presence at the school since the Parkland massacre.

The superintendent said attended a Suffolk superintendents meetings with law enforcement agencies and a forum with the Suffolk County sheriff to discuss school security.

One quote that stuck with her, Henriquez said, was that “by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail.” As difficult as it is to confront things like the possibility of an active shooter in a school, it’s necessary.

“They stressed how important it is to provide proper training to our staff and our students,” Henriquez said. “It’s not just about fire drills these days. It’s about active shooter drills — what to do in an instance like Parkland where a fire alarm is pulled and that’s used against our students,” she said.

Staff and students need to understand that time is a factor, she said. “Sixty-nine percent of these incidences of school shootings are over in five minutes or less,” she said. “Sixty percent end before police arrive.”

Training is crucial. Staff and students must be learned to think and act quickly.

“We’re planning for training here in Riverhead for all staff members,” Henriquez said. Training focuses on, among other things, disaster response psychology.

“Many of us go through that period of denial when we’re in an extreme situation,” she said. “Seconds matter.”

“For example, if you hear something that sounds like fireworks, it’s not fireworks if you’re in a school or a mall — it’s gunshots. You need to react to that and switch your emotions from fear to anger.

At the high school, drills now involve practicing locking and barricading doors, Henriquez said. “That’s not something we did in the past. Usually if someone enters a building with a handgun or rifle they’re not going to waste time trying to break into a classroom where the door is locked and there’s a barricade against the door. So this is strongly suggested before the lights go out and students and teacher are out of sight.”

Law enforcement officials also suggested doing a security assessment, the superintendent said. The district should look at visitor access points — the number and location.

The school district’s closed circuit security cameras are streamed to monitors at the Riverhead Town Police Department headquarters. Board member Byron Perez, who is a Riverhead police officer, said the monitors are located in the police dispatch area. This is not new and has been in place for some time, he said.

Henriquez said she is working with the Riverhead police chief and the county sheriff to provide training to district staff in April, with training in school buildings to follow.

Resident Josh Berezny called for “a gun in the school.” He said the school should have armed security officers.

“What are you going to wait until there are dead bodies to do something or are we actually going to start doing it?” he demanded. “We’ve been talking about it for years already.”

Former school board president Angela DeVito followed Berezny to the podium and voiced opposition to his position.

“I’d like to say as a resident of the town I object very strongly to having armed officers in the school district. I don’t think students should go to school in an armed camp,” she said.

“I hope that when you get to the point that you’ve collected all the information, you hold a community forum on it and all the options you’ve looked at are presented and residents can weigh in on them.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.