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Mulling over ‘mass harm’

Sullivan West talks on recent gun threat

Alex Kielar
Posted 2/20/24

LAKE HUNTINGTON – Following a recent threat made against the Sullivan West Central School District by Narrowsburg resident, 37-year-old Steven Kelly, the school’s Board of Education, …

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Mulling over ‘mass harm’

Sullivan West talks on recent gun threat


LAKE HUNTINGTON – Following a recent threat made against the Sullivan West Central School District by Narrowsburg resident, 37-year-old Steven Kelly, the school’s Board of Education, parents, teachers and law enforcement discussed the security and public safety concerns raised from this threat at the latest board meeting on Thursday evening, February 15.

A recount of events

The suspect was arrested by the Sheriff’s Office on Friday, February 2, at about 6:00 a.m. after he had made social media posts expressing dissatisfaction with the district and made references to the use of a firearm the night before. 

A timeline of events was laid out during the meeting from the point of view of the Sheriff’s Office - Sheriff Mike Schiff, Undersheriff Eric Chaboty and the School Resource Officer (SRO) Lieutenant Cheryl Crumley and Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Bressler. 

Crumley said that she spoke to Dr. Robert Dufour, the Superintendent of Sullivan County BOCES, on Thursday, February 1 at 7:43 p.m. He told her about a “disturbing email and threat” that he received from his Human Resources Director. She said that after Dr. Defour spoke to Dr. Bressler, who contacted the SRO’s at 8:07 p.m., a group text was sent to all the SRO’s in the county regarding the situation. 

“At 8:07 p.m., we made arrangements to have an extra SRO at the Sullivan West Elementary School,” Crumley said. 

Then by 10:00 p.m., Crumley said that she received the threat via email, although the threat was hearsay at that time. Meanwhile, Sullivan County Sheriff’s Detective Robert Cintron patrolled to the witness’s residence, further information was gathered by authorities. 

“We [were] doing pistol permit checks, address checks, vehicle checks, clear reports and doing our background information on our suspect,” Crumley said. “At midnight, the detectives conferenced with the District Attorney’s (DA) Office.”

She said that they called DA Brian Conaty, who put them in contact with his Deputy District Attorney, Michael Puma, and they talked about the charges the DA’s office recommends they pursue. 

“At 6:00 a.m., we sent several patrol members with detectives to the suspect’s [Kelly’s] residence, and he was taken into custody without incident,” Crumley recounted.

Crumley also said that after doing a search of the suspect’s residence, they found no firearms and no operable vehicle for him to drive. She also said that at 6:39 a.m., Detective Cintron sent the message to all SROs that the suspect was in custody. At 6:55 p.m., she said that Dr. Bressler was notified.

Bressler said that in her timeline of events, she was called with second or third-hand information speaking of a threat having to do with Sullivan West. 

“That’s it, there was not a lot,” Bressler said. “I’m waiting to hear back from law enforcement. I called my resource officers and it just turns out we had found out at the same time because Dr. Dufour had just called them as well.”

Bressler said that she gets her verbiage from the Sheriff’s Office and does not make up terms herself. 

“I am not looking to report anything that I don’t have information on,” she said. “Obviously, we have to iron that out because from my understanding of those terms, we weren’t in immediate harm. What is non-credible and credible? Which again, was the communication we had that day.”

Dr. Bressler reflects

Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Bressler continued to say that, looking back, she should not have waited that day and instead of waiting to hear back from more people, she should have been more proactive in making sure she talked to someone by the end of the day. 

“I spoke to Lieutenant Crumley Saturday morning, which then I knew I needed to get this information out. I understand and some said they would like an apology. I do apologize for that. I was waiting and thinking I would get something else to give and I didn’t,” Bressler said.

“So a vague statement came out Saturday instead of a vague statement on Friday. Actions speak louder than words, and I know that.”

Bressler also said she has had to deal with two threats since then that she did communicate on. 

“Please assume positive intentions,” said Bressler. “I wish I had never left the office that day. I understand the frustration and I understand what this has caused. But I truly hope to see more information here so that we can continue to work together in a new light.”

“There may have been some breakdowns in communication,” Sheriff Schiff said. “We don’t notify teachers, we notify the school.” 

Schiff said they called in people that Friday night to come into work and immediately get on the case. 

“We didn’t stop until we had him in custody,” Schiff said. “We did not ignore it, we didn’t look the other way, and we didn’t wait till the following morning to start our investigation to interview him at his place of work. When school opened that morning [Friday, February 2] he was in our custody.”

“Communication needs to be better,” Bressler said. 

Several upset parents and school staff came forward during public comment to make themselves heard and plea for something more to be done. 

“The most recent incident involving a threat is a glaring example of what could have been a terrible situation,” said Stephanie Carmono, a parent of a student at Sullivan West Elementary School. “While I understand the desire to avoid causing mass panic, it is ultimately our right as parents to decide whether our children should attend school after such events.”

Jen Sayers, faculty member, community member and first responder said, “I really want the board to be aware that the faculty and staff were unaware. We found out about the safety concerns of our building the same way that the parents found out two days later.”

Former Sullivan County District Attorney and current County Court Judge Jim Farrell, a resident of Jeffersonville whose wife, Nicole, is a teacher at Sullivan West, said that what Dr. Bressler said was troubling to him on a lot of different levels. 

“You the board hire the superintendent to run this school district; she is the CEO of this school district,” Farrell said. “[And you say] ‘I don’t know what the threat was’? That’s the response to the community. When Bob Dufour called you on Thursday evening, [February 1] and told you there was a threat against your school district, you had an obligation and a duty to find out about it.”

Some parents with young kids stated that they had taken their kids out of school following the threat being made and are unsure of when it will be ok to have them return, given the fact that safety is still a concern. 

“I really would like to send my daughter back to school, but I’m having such a hard time trusting the process,” Jennifer Flanagan of Narrowsburg, whose daughter is in Pre-K, said. "She’s home and we’re doing fine, but we just want change and we want answers.”

More than a misdemeanor?

Should being charged with making a threat of mass harm against a school district be a qualifying defense for bail in New York State? Sullivan West Central School District Board of Education member Brian Kitson noted he thinks so at their meeting on February 15.

“Next fall for the State School Board Association Meeting, we are considering putting forward a resolution to make a qualifying defense for bail,” Kitson said. “When someone makes a threat like this against a school, if that doesn’t hold you over for bail, I don’t know what does.”

Kelly, the Narrowsburg man who was arrested for the threat of mass harm against the Sullivan West School District by the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, and charged with a misdemeanor, was subsequently released without bail.

Kitson is not the only person involved with the security of the school district who thinks this as well. Former District Attorney and current Sullivan County Judge Jim Farrell expressed his frustration before the Board of Education Thursday night.

“Threat of mass harm is a misdemeanor — it’s a glorified traffic ticket,” Judge Farrell said. “Shouldn’t someone who threatens to shoot up a school, to shoot everyone in his way, be charged with a felony?” 

“That’s a policy decision,” he said, “but the school board can certainly advocate for that.” 

Sullivan County Legislator Luis Alvarez, who was a member of law enforcement for over 30 years, was in attendance at the meeting Thursday night. 

“I think the Governor [Hochul] should get an earful about this,” Alvarez said. 

Harkening back to a similar instance in which bail reform played a critical role, Alvarez recalled “Billy’s Law.” This resolution, which has yet to pass, was named after fallen firefighter William “Billy” Steinberg Jr. and aimed at altering the bail reform law regarding convicted arsonists. 

“We let arson go up in the air and it took someone losing their life to change it,” Alvarez said, going on to say that threats of mass harm are similarly not to be overlooked. 

Sullivan County Sheriff Mike Schiff said he finds New York’s Bail reform system a “form of insanity.”

Backing him up was Undersheriff Eric Chaboty, who said that the Sheriff’s Office originally wanted to charge Kelly with making a terroristic threat, but was advised by Sullivan County’s District Attorney’s Office Chief Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Michael Puma to changing the charge to making a threat of mass harm.

“We will work with you on the wording [of the letter],” Schiff said. “...It’s a subject that’s near and dear to us.”

Derek Kirk contributed to this report.


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