School safety and drug issues addressed at South Merrick civics meet

by Sharon G. Jonas

The South Merrick Community Civic Association’s (SMCCA) first meeting of the season focused on school security and drug paraphernalia allegedly found in the Lakeside school yard. Over 50 concerned residents attended.

President Joe Baker welcomed guest speakers Dr. Dominic Palma, superintendent of the Merrick School District, and Keechant Sewell, the newly appointed commanding officer of the Seventh Precinct. Paul Vista, head of SMCCA’s neighborhood watch program and representatives from Problem Oriented Policing (POP) also spoke about local crime-related issues.

Baker opened by saying, “We can’t have drugs coming into our community.” To help combat safety issues he said a School Security Committee and a Neighborhood Watch Program were established by SMCCA and community support of them are encouraged.

Superintendent Palma reported that security cameras installed on school property after the violence in Sandy Hook provide him with information to review on a daily basis. He encouraged everyone to immediately send him emails about incidents, such as the needles and syringes allegedly found at the Lakeside school, rather than simply post pictures on Facebook or calling the police.

He said he could send a custodian even on weekends to walk the grounds, if he is notified. He assured residents that the grounds are routinely inspected every Monday morning before school begins.

Dr. Palma’s reviews of nighttime surveillance footage revealed no indication of anyone leaving the paraphernalia. The close-up photograph taken by a parent of the items found did not reveal a specific location, and his review of daytime footage is not complete. Limitations with surveillance picture quality were expressed by Dr. Palma, along with the hope to acquire better technology.

But many residents, along with Ron Luparello, who heads SMCCA’s school safety committee, spoke out, saying that school security efforts should include more than watching on Monday morning the activity that already took place. Adding roaming guards persists as a desired security measure by many residents. “I’ve worked in a district and we had roaming security and we still had vandalism issues,” said Superintendent Palma.

Other suggestions included making arrests for trespassing, rounding up kids hanging out and making their parents come to pick them up, installing sensor lights with silent alarms to notify police of activity, locking the gates at night and fencing the entire area rather than just part of it.

Resident Steven Zell demanded that a solution to the drug problem at schools be made immediately. He told Superintendant Palma, “I know you could solve [this problem]…it’s just a matter if you want to or not.”

Nassau County Legislator David Denenberg commented on the suggestion to set up mandatory drug education meetings for parents and students, saying that the central district now has a program for fifth-graders as they transition to middle school. He said, “We could bring those programs to you.”

Steve Rhoads, vying for Legislator Denenberg’s position, agreed with using such programs. He applauded efforts like Merrick Moms, the Facebook page that promotes community connections and takes an “integrated approach” to the problem of drugs, which says “..drugs aren’t just here but everywhere.”

After two hours of discussion, Superintendent Palma was able to agree with locking the gates, which he said will involve working with baseball and soccer groups who use the fields. He said more lights could be installed as well, taking into consideration neighbors bordering the school who find them intrusive.

Additional security issues need to be reviewed by the school board and he suggested residents attend the next meeting scheduled for October 8.

Neighborhood watch

Paul Vista, head of the Neighborhood Watch Committee encouraged people to get involved in their neighborhoods. “We aren’t authorizing a vigilante operation, but an eyes-and-ears operation.”

He said people should introduce themselves to their neighbors and pick a block representative. “Shame on you if you leave this meeting and don’t get involved,” said Mr. Vista. He also asked everyone to give him information and register as part of the watch.

Seventh Precinct speaks

Commander Keechant Sewell (rhymes with jewel) said she may be new to the area, but not to the issues. “You want to be safe in your homes. You want to be safe in your communities. And most of all you want your children to be safe in their schools. My focus is to make that happen for each and every one of you.”

Working with the POP and all officers who report daily to her and are already familiar with the area, Commander Sewell urged residents to assist police by reporting all suspicious activity with as much detail as possible. “Your eyes and ears are important to us. We need you more than you know.”

In the case of suspicious strangers, she said the difficulty is often that children are scared by such encounters and therefore can provide little information about the suspect. One arrest was made in North Merrick because a young girl had the presence of mind to snap a picture of the car’s license plate.

To expedite reports of this nature, she said a new email advisory system is being set up through the schools. Now, notification goes through the media, but she said not everyone watches News 12 or makes it home in time to get the information.

Regarding a complaint of underage drinking and late-night activity at the Lakeside School, Commander Sewell said, “A lot of issues come to play with that as well. A 13-year-old shouldn’t be out at 2 a.m. in the park.” She said there is a need to address the issue of where their parents are and where the alcohol came from in the first place.

Lakeside has been a focus for us.” She said that officers are now repeatedly checking the area throughout the night and that increased police presence is standard procedure and will continue until further notification.

Dr. Palma confirmed that the police are doing thorough checks of the school grounds nightly as he does daily reviews of footage taken by surveillance cameras set up on the playground and surrounding area. “I see them driving through two to three times a night.” He said they also get out of their cars and walk about with flashlights and spotlights.

When one resident complained that she sees no police presence at all, shouts of “I disagree” and “That’s not true” came from the crowd. Mr. Baker stated he believes Nassau County police do a “phenomenal” job.

Speaking on behalf of the POP division, Sgt. Dave Veverka explained that they support police who get tied up with other calls and issues and work closely with the schools. “My biggest problem is personnel. We are very short and I’m not going to lie about it. Still, I think we do a good job.”

He said that 2 full-time cars are assigned to patrol Merrick and 2 for Bellmore south of Sunrise Highway between the Meadowbrook and Wantagh Highways 24/7, each day of the year. In addition to that the Seventh Precinct puts out 21 cars per shift and plain clothes officers, special operations and crime response units also work the area.

The next SMCCA meeting, October 29, will be a “Meet the Candidates” night.

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