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Everybody on board: Student safety and wellness a multitiered, team effort


by Joanne Kountourakis and Chrissy Ruggeri | Tue, May 14 2024
In a recent conversation with the Journal, Superintendent of Schools Dave Moyer discussed an incident involving a threat of mass harm at East Northport Middle School and what can be done to prevent more incidents in the future.

In a recent conversation with the Journal, Superintendent of Schools Dave Moyer discussed an incident involving a threat of mass harm at East Northport Middle School and what can be done to prevent more incidents in the future.

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Superintendent of Schools Dr. Dave Moyer agreed to speak to the Journal on Friday, May 10, just days after an incident at East Northport Middle School resulted in the arrest of a student charged with threats of mass harm. Parts of that phone conversation are included in the article below, written at a time of concern about the number of incidents happening in the middle schools this year alone – with many wondering what can be done to help prevent more incidents in the future.

An incident at East Northport Middle School – the second of its kind this year – resulted in the arrest of a student last week.  

“As many of you may be aware, we experienced an instance of a student making a violent threat against the school district yesterday afternoon at East Northport Middle School,” Superintendent Dave Moyer wrote in a community message on May 7. “No weapons were found and all students and staff are safe and unharmed. While deeply frustrating and upsetting, this is sadly becoming more common at schools across Long Island and the country.”

The student was removed from the building after allegedly making verbal threats against the school, marking the second time in four months that an ENMS student was arrested for the same misdemeanor. 

In January, administration at ENMS was alerted by officers with the FBI that a student made a threat against the school via the social media platform, Snapchat. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Dave Moyer confirmed with the Journal that the threats were made by two different individuals. In both instances, the students were arrested, charged with threats of mass harm, and released to their parents. 

Because of student privacy concerns, specific details about the incidents, including any information that might reveal the student’s identity (including age, grade, etc.) cannot be shared by the district. Details about any resulting investigations or disciplinary measures taken after the incident are also not made public, though a minimum five-day suspension is usually mandatory in cases like this, with other actions taken according to the district’s code of conduct.

In his conversation with the Journal, Moyer said he understands why parents might be frustrated about the lack of information regarding what happened during these incidents and the consequences of those actions. But he stressed a firm stance when it comes to taking these types of things seriously. “We are not afraid to press charges and arrest kids. We are not afraid to suspend kids out of school for longer periods of time,” he said. “But I think if it was your kid, or your family, you would also want us to have some empathy and compassion, and help the kid. Some of these kids are still eleven or twelve years old – if they need help, they need help.” Moyer said he tries to balance maintaining safety within the school while recognizing the public school system’s responsibility to help children. “In the long run, that is a service to society, if we help these kids at younger ages,” he said. 

Behind the scenes: The process 
If a student or parent informs the district of an incident, the process in place by the district begins immediately, Moyer said. The first thing the district does is call the student in and make sure he/she doesn’t have any weapons or anything that can cause harm to anyone. Then the district takes statements. The police will go to the home if there’s evidence to suggest it’s necessary, an action Moyer said he pushes for in order to rule out the presence of weapons inside the residence. 

According to the district’s code of conduct, a student can be suspended by a building administrator for up to five days for disciplinary infractions. For suspensions beyond that time period, there would have to be a superintendent hearing. In these cases, the district tries to address whatever is going on in the student’s life that caused concern or resulted in an alarming incident, Moyer explained. If an extended suspension is ruled to be appropriate, the district provides academic services so that the student can continue earning class credits. Oftentimes, a psychologist evaluation is required for reentry, Moyer said, and the district will also look at classroom placement to ensure that the student is in an environment that allows for their success. 

“We have good processes in place,” Moyer said. “I don’t think there’s a great awareness of all of these angles that we’re involved in.” The in-place protocols, many of which take place behind the scenes, have enabled the district to identify immediately and prevent – up to this point – random acts of violence so prevalent in the country. “We continue to refine our practices and look at what we’re doing,” he said, noting that the district works with law enforcement to stay abreast of best practices and has an open line of communication with multiple agencies. 

District security procedures 
Northport-East Northport schools undergo annual safety protocols, Moyer explained, including required drills, monitoring and consultation practices. The district has a contract with Altaris Consulting Group, which provides a security director and consulting services that keep the district up to date with current trends, monitor what’s occurring across the country and state, and alert the district of incidents that cause local “copy cat” concerns. These processes take place in consultation with state police and state officials, Moyer said. 

“There’s probably a lot more going on than people realize. We have a good relationship with our local law enforcement, we have ample security across the district – probably to a much greater degree than any other district I’ve ever seen, and we’ve secured all of our entrances,” he explained. Moyer noted the numerous staff and cooperative training that takes place, including active shooter drills with local law enforcement. There are also training sessions that take place with student services and security staff, and work related to the profiling of high-risk students being reviewed, which – although controversial, Moyer said – is used in an attempt to predict and prevent actions before they occur.  

Moyer also spoke about tools such as an anonymous district hotline students and/or parents can call to report behavior or request help, responsive classroom training for all teachers at the elementary level, and push-in opportunities for counselors, social workers and student services staff  throughout the school year.

Social-emotional component 
In addition to the safety and security protocols in place within the district, the social-emotional component of education has become an important factor. There is a “multitier system of support” at our schools, Moyer said, using a whole-child approach that includes both academics and social-emotional wellness.

Moyer spoke about the importance of implementing personalized learning practices to reach and support all students, and to help them feel a positive connection to their schools. There is already an established district “belonging” committee, he said, which is currently forming teams for each building. Moyer wants to build this into a school improvement planning process, where teachers have yearly goals related to student belonging. He believes equity concerns regarding student belonging will emerge as the district collects and gets better at analyzing student data. “When we start to build awareness of that, I think we’ll get better at personalized learning and meeting kids’ needs in different ways,” he said.  

When a student is struggling from a social-emotional wellness perspective, there’s a different set of support that kicks in than if it were an academic concern, Moyer explained. “That’s why we have social workers at every school and our school psychologists. We have personnel internally and we have a partnership with Northwell for psychiatric care,” he said. Northwell’s work with the district allows for students to receive care faster, bypassing the long waits that are common for this type of service. The service is currently being used, and often, Moyer said, and is an important component of student health.  

Moyer said that effective prevention directly involves tier one instruction and teachers building good relationships with their students. “Are kids feeling like they’re being recognized for their talents and [do they have] an adult they feel comfortable going to in the building? Are instructional practices meeting the needs of all students? This is part of belonging and creating a supportive culture,” he said. 

Rewired brains: The cell phone dilemma 
It’s not the only thing, Moyer said, but there’s emerging evidence that “the cell phone issue is a big issue.”

Moyer refers to research on how adolescent brains are being rewired through their constant access to technology and social media, and how that’s affecting their ability to make decisions, interact interpersonally and handle conflict. “It’s a game changer, and the age that kids’ brains are developing and the age that they have access to phones is not a good mix,” he said. 

Regarding cell phone use in school, there is an “off and away” policy in place at the middle schools. In the high school, teachers encourage the use of pockets, usually hung over a door, for students to leave their phones in when entering a classroom. “It’s not mandated, but some teachers expect and enforce it during class time,” Moyer said.  

 “At this point, we probably have enough information and enough commitment on the schools’ end to just say ‘Forget it, no cellphones,’” Moyer continued. “The problem with that is the enforcement it requires from teachers and administrators, who are focused on cell phones instead of teaching.” Additional cell phone policies – and ways to find a balance that works for staff and students – are being discussed with fellow superintendents, Moyer said. 

There is pushback, however, from parents who want to be in contact with their children throughout the day: “That’s the other factor – the community is going to have to support it for it to work,” the superintendent said. 

A collective effort
In his email to the community after last week’s incident, Moyer asked that adults who witness concerning behavior taking place outside of school, on social media, or in small groups immediately notify the school so that “we can utilize the many resources we have available to provide appropriate support for our students.”

He emphasized the importance of cooperation between schools and families, asked for parent support in monitoring their children’s phones and online activity, and even suggested a book: The Anxious Generation by New York University Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In the book, Haidt proposes four norms to end an epidemic of mental illness he believes is largely caused by a shift from organic to tech-based lives. These rules include no smart phones before eighth grade, no social media before 16 years old, no phones at school and more independence, free play and responsibility away from screens. 

“As school leaders, we get frustrated when everybody says we’re supposed to fix this problem and everytime there’s a school shooting, an elected official says ‘thoughts and prayers’ and that's the end of the conversation.” A collective effort is essential to making progress, he said: “We are committed to doing everything we can and we recognize our responsibility, but we need everybody on board.”

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