Citing safety concerns and the welfare of their students, the Massapequa School District announced that they will be permanently closing a small tract of land that they own that separates two of its schools as of early January 2015.
The so-called Unqua/Berner “path” is a 250 foot-long secluded walkway named for the two schools it serves as a conduit between—Berner Middle and Unqua Elementary—and is located behind the Philips Shopping Center on Sunrise Highway. The path is obscured from view in the shopping center by an eight foot tall wooden fence erected 20 years ago in accordance with Town of Oyster Bay ordinances, and in recent years it has fallen into disuse by the school district, according to Superintendent of Schools Lucille F. Iconis.
“The pathway was highly utilized back when Berner used to be a high school. Literally hundreds of kids were using it every day,” she said. “But now—and we have done studies to back this up—between 6 to 12 students a day use it, who are typically between 11 and 13 years of age. That’s it. Nowadays, parents drive their kids to school, so we don’t have many kids using it at all, except when sports teams occasionally use it to go back and forth between practice fields.”
However, recent issues have begun to plague the pathway; issues that have been exasperated by the fact that it provides a shortcut to the shopping center, Iconis said. This has led to rampant trespassing on school grounds by numerous non-students, she said, as well as creating unsafe conditions for students on the Unqua/Berner path itself.
“What these people do is congregate at the Berner mouth of the path, and when the gate is unlocked, they use the path to walk to the shopping center. These people are walking through Berner’s fields every morning, right through gym classes,” she said. “What happens is that there is a lot of illicit activity, including drug dealing, happening on the path; we find drug paraphernalia and other potentially harmful items discarded there, graffiti, and there are homeless people who have take up residence there. In fact, in October our track team saw a man bathing in the creek there.”
Iconis said that the district has stationed security guards, but the meandering nature of the pathway has presented an obstacle to effective surveillance. Meanwhile, requests by security to leave school grounds have been ignored by the interlopers for the most part, and while the Nassau County Police Department has been summoned many times, she said that as soon as they leave, the trespassers return almost immediately.
Nassau County Police 7th Precinct Commanding Officer Inspector Joseph Barbieri noted that for some time the Unqua/Berner Path has been a safety issue, but said that recently the hazards seem to have died down some somewhat.
“In years past, the path was a bit of a trouble spot. Graffiti and disturbance calls for the most part. It is used as a cut through short cut to the shopping center,” he said. “Sometime in early 2014, the school district installed cameras and that pretty much took care of a lot of the problems. We had one call for graffiti and two disturbance calls there last year. We were not aware that the district was shutting it down.”
Clearly, drastic measures needed to be taken to ensure the safety of the students under her watch; therefore Iconis, along with the Board of Education, made the decision early in the school year to effectively seal the path for good, as of early January.
“We are going to remove the bridge at the Berner end of the path in a way cleared by the Environmental Protecting Agency, and we’re going to erect a series of fences on both the Berner and Unqua sides of the path,” said Iconis. “In addition, we’re also going to plant foliage in the fenced-off areas and allow it to grow, trees, bushes, and so on. We’re closing the path, and will be working with the Town of Oyster Bay and the ownership of the Philips Shopping Center to do so.”
Iconis noted that the walkway that connects the Philips Shopping Center to a cul-de-sac in the Bellaire section of Massapequa will remain open to foot traffic; however, any access to and from school grounds will be completely removed for good, and the wooden wall will likely be relocated in a way that opens up more of the remaining section of the path to outside view.
“With all the focus on security, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at this district; where are we the most vulnerable, where is the most liability? This path is the problem, and we just can’t allow this to remain…it’s just way too dangerous in my view, and in the view of the Board of Education,” she said. “We’ve tried to do our homework, and you’re always looking at securing this place. It’s one of the most important things we do, to keep things safe.”