In retrospect: Examining the effects of tragedy on the school environment

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Emergency responders arrive at the scene of the fire on Main Street. The fire took hours to extinguish, and displaced both residents and businesses.

This school year was marked with a host of local and national tragedies. From Sandy and Sandy Hook to the bombings in Boston, there was no shortage of grief to go around. However, through it all, students and staff worked past the difficult situations to lend support to their peers across town and across the nation, while attempting to better prepare our school district to face future difficulties.

“It’s been a remarkably difficult year, on a whole host of levels,” said Principal Mr. Ira Pernick.  “I think it’s part of the human condition to exhibit resilience, which is all about being able to bounce back and resume normal activity, even after events like Sandy Hook.”

As always, the guidance department and school psychologists made themselves available this year to any students who needed support while dealing with the gravity of these events.

“It’s always hard to tell with real numbers, but I do think this has been a little bit more of a tough year, both for students and frankly, for staff as well,” said school psychologist Dr. Dennis Meade.  “It’s been a little bit more of a grind than some other years, I think because a lot of people were thrown off because of the storm and other issues.”

Despite the emotional setbacks this year, the student body has moved on, and continued going about their business as usual.

“This school community is emblematic of what a resilient community should look like,” said Mr. Pernick.  “I’m amazed at the ability of students and staff to perform at a high level continuously, regardless of what happens in the world around them.  At the same time, I want us to keep talking about these events.  We can’t allow them to go and not be a continual part of our discussion.  I would like to talk about them more, and at the same time I’m proud of how our school has responded.”

In October and early November, supermarkets and hardware stores shelves were stark, and the streets of Port Washington were empty for days in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.  Sandy tore down dozens of power lines, ripped through trees and residential neighborhoods, and left Port Washington schools closed for an entire week.  Some residents were out of power for up to fifteen days,  and a number of teachers living on Long Island lost their homes and were without heat and electricity until late November, nearly a month after the storm cleared.

“There was definitely a strong sense of camaraderie during and after Sandy.  What you saw were a lot of families together and helping each other out like a true community,” said senior Shalini Radhakrishnan.

After school resumed, students and faculty banded together to do their part to give back. The English Honor Society supplied $200 to purchase and donate school supplies for the Oceanside School District, and students, teachers, the HSA, Key Club and the Human Relations Club ran drives to collect several carfuls of diapers, cleaning supplies, hygiene kits, and gift cards for Island Park and Long Beach.

“I have to say that Schreiber, as a community, I’ve never seen so much love and concern from a group of people as I did during that time,” said science teacher Mr. Michael Campanella, whose home was badly damaged during the storm.  “It was a difficult time for me and for my family and I think that between the students, the teachers, the administrators here, everybody was wonderful and did all they could to help me out as best as they could, whether it was covering classes or helping me fix my home.  Everyone really come together and it felt more like a family and it still does, than anything else.  It was really a positive experience from a terrible thing.”

After the storm, school administrators scrambled to account for missed school days, in order to conform with New York State’s 180-day school year requirement. Although the district annually adds in four extra days to the school calendar to account for emergency school closings, students and staff missed six days of school during the two weeks immediately following the storm. In order to receive the full amount of allotted funding from the state education department, districts must have school opened for the full 180 days.

In creating next year’s academic calendar, the Board of Education created a safety net for any type of emergency situation that could necessitate adding instructional days back into the school year.

“The administration and BOE jointly agreed that it would be prudent to include the two inclement weather days highlighted in the ‘13-‘14 calendar,” said Board of Education member Mr. Alan Baer.  “By publishing the dates, now we are able to provide advance notice to the community and staff of the days, should the need arise.”

On Dec. 14, another tragedy struck.  Adam Lanza killed a total of 26 people, 20 children and 6 adults, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  After Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook is the second deadliest school shooting in American history.

Students in the Key Club, with help from senior Margaret Pepe, sold paper support ribbons in the weeks after the shooting, raising over $700, which was donated to the Newtown Memorial Fund. The club displayed the ribbons in the lobby, framing a banner that read “Do not, cannot, will not forget,” which has since been taken down.

“We did our event, and then we kind of move on to the next event,” said Mr. Pernick.  “I get that, and there’s something to that. At the same time, it’s tough.”

The tragedy in Connecticut spurred gun control debates across the country, and shifted public attention towards school security measures nationwide, and in the Port school district.

“Over the last year, we’ve had a number of meetings with the emergency preparedness committee, school administration, and district safety team, and we’ve developed a multi-tiered approach to things that we’re looking to change and to enhance,” said Assistant Principal Mr. David Miller.

One of the most visible changes for security next year will be the new visitor management system.

“After Newtown, a more thorough review was undertaken and we’ve discussed and have decided to implement the Scholarchip program at each school,” said Mr. Miller.

Beginning in September, all visitors to the school will have to check in at a Scholarchip machine, where a faculty member will take his or her photograph and scan his or her driver’s license, in order to run a set of background checks against public databases.  Each visitor will receive an identification sticker with his or her photograph and name, and the system will keep track of all visitors who are in the building at all times.

“There are many many schools across the country that are doing this. That’s the way things are going right now,” said Mr. Miller.  “We’re up to date right now.”

When students and faculty arrive for school in September, the district will have hired four new guards, three of whom will work primarily in the five elementary schools. Next year, administrators are also hoping to keep doors other than the main entrance locked throughout the day. Teachers and faculty members will receive magnetized ID cards to activate pin pads located at the locked doors if they choose to go through other entrances. The security booth will also be fully active come September.

“I think people appreciate us more now,” said campus security guard Mr. Richie Hart.  “Most people know we’re all retired cops, which makes a difference.  People tend to think we have the experience to see things in a different light that most people wouldn’t.  I think the students’ attitudes have changed too; they appreciate us being around more.”

On March 14, a  fire blazed through the top floors of the historic Fleming building on Main Street.  Only moments after the fire broke out, smoke and dark clouds hovered above much of the area around Schreiber, filling the halls with smells of smoke.  Students, teachers, and community members panicked as pictures of the flames surfaced on News 12 and other local media sources.  It took several hours to extinguish the flames entirely, and local firefighters, EMTs, and other emergency responders stayed at the scene into the early morning.

“Battling such a big blaze in Port Washington seems so uncommon,” said senior Kelly McDonough, who volunteers for the Port Washington Fire Department.  “However, it happened to us.  Fighting the fire for long hours throughout the night, along with other circumstances was tiring to many members, but with teamwork and tactical skills, it was controlled much easier.”

Despite the initial alarm of such a large fire in a local building, the community responded promptly.  Many locals came to the scene to support the emergency responders as they struggled to aid the victims and fight the flames.

“Seeing how many people showed up to help that afternoon, whether they were firefighters, EMTs, or just people from Port really shows how tight of a community we are,” said McDonough.

The Future Business Leaders of America organized  a large-scale clothing drive.  The club received money for each pound of clothing collected, and used the funds to purchase gift cards for the families affected.

“The idea came up right before the fire and we thought it would be best to try and give immediate relief since it was a local cause everyone knew about and experienced,” said junior Anthony DiCaro.  “The response was stupendous and very surprising.  I had no idea we were going to have the amount of donations we did.  We’re thankful to all those who donated and hope they were able to clean up their rooms and houses in the process!”

Just as  it seemed that the year was calming down, the explosion of two pressure cooker bombs brought a dramatic end to the annual Boston Marathon on April 15, killing 5 and injuring 280.  On April 19, after the scene had been cleared, police officers and local volunteers began a large scale manhunt for the two suspects, essentially shutting down Boston and surrounding suburbs for nine hours.

“It was probably the most surreal week of my life. Everybody was on edge. My friends and I stayed up until 5 a.m. watching the news, and dorms were on lockdown. It was unsettling how many times I had to text my parents that I was okay that week, ” said Sophia Jaffe (‘12), who attends MIT, where Sean Colliers, a campus policeman, was fatally shot during the manhunt.  “The humanity that the bombers lacked was found in the people of Boston.”

Several Schreiber students found themselves stuck in Boston while the city was shut down, including two seniors who were visiting Boston University. Senior Jennifer Schild found herself stuck in the airport.

“I had just picked up my bags from the luggage area and headed towards the front of the airport to get a taxi when an airport security guard stopped me and said that there were no taxi services running and that no one was allowed to leave the airport,” said Schild.  “Nobody knew how long we would have to wait in the airport.  It was nerve wracking because the airport served as both a safe haven for the people hiding in it for protection and as a target because the bomber could potentially try to leave the state through the airport.  Although it was very scary, there was a lot of camaraderie.”

Although these tragic events have come and gone, students and faculty recognize a lasting impact that they have had on the school.

“I think that things like this have made Schreiber students more compassionate and more aware,” said senior Makenzie Drukker.  “We realized that tragedies could hit close to home, and I think that really affected people.”