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Student’s death prompts hard questions in Hewlett-Woodmere

District schedules ‘postvention’ forums

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In response to the death of a student five days earlier, a dozen residents addressed topics including vaping, code-of-conduct policies and possible mental health initiatives at the Hewlett-Woodmere School District Board of Education’s work meeting on Sept. 11.

John Sabu, 15, a Hewlett High School sophomore, was struck and killed by a Long Island Rail Road train at the Hewlett station on Sept. 6. “The Hewlett-Woodmere community suffered a devastating tragedy — we lost a child,” board President Mitchell Greebel said. “Emotions from profound sadness to utter disbelief have come across all of us in the community.” 

Greebel added that speculation about the circumstances of Sabu’s death should not be addressed. “The background is between he and his family,” he said. “We could all sit here and speculate what happened, but I’d prefer not to do that.”

In a Sept. 11 letter sent to parents and guardians of district students, Hewlett High Principal William Galati noted that what he called “postvention” workshops would be held for the entire student body on Sept. 25 and 26. Postvention is a process that helps people cope with a loss.

“Not surprisingly, members of our school community have offered many ideas and suggestions that they feel the district should consider,” Galati wrote. “We accept these ideas with gratitude, but the focus of our team must rest on the utilization of support deemed appropriate by our mental health professionals, as well as experts in this field.”

Leslie Eisenberg, who has two children in the high school, said that the workshops are long overdue. “With all due respect, I know there are programs in the future,” she said, “but the kids need it now. I implore you to do what you can now.”

Eisenberg added that telling students to “go see the guidance department” when they need help isn’t enough. “Our guidance department is phenomenal,” she said. “But the students aren’t going to knock on their door, because they don’t have the trust that guidance is the right audience for them to hear their problems.”

District Superintendent Dr. Ralph Marino acknowledged that the school district needed to redouble its efforts to address students’ mental health issues. “We have given surveys to students in grades six to 12 that have indicated they are stressed and have anxiety issues,” Marino said. “It’s clear that we have work to do in regards to social and emotional learning. It will take time.”

Anne Bellin’s daughter is a Hewlett High sophomore, in the same grade as Sabu. “My daughter has expressed that she is frightened about what’s going on in the school,” Bellin said. “She’s frightened by the amount of violence, vaping and disrespect shown by students toward teachers and authority figures.”

Marino said that a number of students have already been suspended for vaping this school year. “If students are caught vaping, they will be suspended,” he said. “Vaping is an issue that every school district deals with, since it’s hard to detect.” In recent years, Marino added, the district attempted to combat vaping by locking some of the restrooms in the high school, but that led to “pushback from parents.” 

Bellin’s daughter isn’t the only student who has concerns. Senior Emma Moroney sent an email to Galati on Sept. 9, saying that the district needed to increase mental health awareness. “It is so extremely sad that it took something like this for us to finally bring up the terms of mental health and mental illness schoolwide,” Moroney wrote, referring to Sabu’s death. “We must work each and every day to make Hewlett High School a much safer environment to let children know that it is OK to talk to someone to start the process of healing.”

Robyn Kelstein, president of the district’s Central Council PTA, acknowledged the increased presence of parents at the work meeting and expressed hope that would continue at future meetings. “Residents shouldn’t just show up because we are mourning the loss of a student,” Kelstein said. “This room should be filled twice a month with parents.”

A Board of Education meeting was set for Wednesday, after the Herald went to press. The next work meeting is scheduled for Oct. 2, at 7:30 p.m., at the Woodmere Education Center, at 1 Johnson Place.

Have an opinion about the Hewlett-Woodmere School District? Send your letter to the editor to jbessen@liherald.com.