WESTFIELD, NJ — The community is responding to security procedure changes in Westfield public schools.
Over 20 community members spoke at the school board meeting Tuesday night, offering their thoughts on topics ranging from the use of armed officers in schools to public communication about security plan updates and protocols for after school events.
“Security is an ongoing challenge, and we will continue to adapt and improve as we go forward,” said Superintendent Margaret Dolan, responding to the public concern. “All staff share responsibility regarding the safety of our students. And all staff understand this.”
Last month, Dolan and School Business Administrator Dana Sullivan had detailed new security procedures put in place for the upcoming school year. Dolan said the district has reviewed and updated several safety procedures following the arrest of an armed man outside of Tamaques school in June.
Dolan said this includes secretaries, who are tasked with allowing visitor access. “They’ve always been in charge of allowing access into the building, and they understand the importance of security,” she said. “They have been doing an excellent job in this area.”
Staff members have also been trained, Dolan said, to recognize when a student may be in crisis.
“The teachers know it’s their responsibility to notify their supervisor of any of these concerns,” she said. “We then rely on our counselors and psychologists as the first step to investigate and determine what sorts of next steps are necessary.”
How have the police been involved?
“The safety and security of your children is one of my greatest concerns,” said Police Chief Christopher Battiloro. “Last June, as you know, we experienced a scare at Tamaques school.”
Police found a man on school grounds armed with a 25-caliber handgun, fully loaded with hollow point bullets, Battiloro said.
“The explicit purpose of this subject’s presence at Tamaques school may never be known for sure, but I think we can all infer the worst was certainly possible,” he said. “It should remind you that the safety and security of our children is not a given, and it should never be taken for granted.”
Since the incident, Battiloro said, school district officials and police have met several times. He said the department has recommended several of the new changes the district has put in place.
“The incident that occurred at Tamaques school was discussed in great detail," he said. "We talked about what was done right, what was done wrong, and what could have been done better.”
Now that these procedures have been enacted, Battiloro said, it’s up to parents to follow through.
“Our police officers performed admirably last June, and what we need now is for you, the parents of our children, to perform similarly. To follow these new security measures, knowing full well that the consequences could be different, much different, if you fail to do so,” he said. “The incident at Tamaques school was a wakeup call, that complacency cannot and should not be accepted.”
Security had been a priority for the department prior to the Tamaques incident, Battiloro said.
“Prior to the Tamaques school incident, school security was one of my foremost concerns,” he said. He explained that officers have been conducting security checks at each of the schools twice a day.
“They were also making unannounced security checks of every public elementary school twice a day. Once in the morning, and once in the afternoon,” which included a walkthrough of each floor, exterior perimeter and grounds inspections, and meetings with staff and students, he said.
Battiloro said the department will continue to work closely with the district.
“[We] cannot let one incident otherwise ruin what should be some of the most precious, innocent and enjoyable years of our children’s lives,” Battiloro said. “In Westfield today, the persistent presence of police officers in schools has become the norm. And I promise you this: it shall remain so for as long as I am chief.”
How is the community responding?
Westfield resident Evan Marks said the district needs to confront the rise of mass shootings.
“Obviously this is something that’s been happening in our country. We need to figure out the best ways to approach it,” Marks said. “There [are] a lot of things we can do to improve, and I know you guys are working on it.”
Amy Heller, who has nieces and nephews in Westfield schools, advocated for the hiring of school resource officers, known as SROs, for the elementary schools. The district currently only employs SROs at the high school and two intermediate schools.
“We have them in the high school, we have them in the middle schools, we’d like to see a school resource officer in the elementary schools,” said Heller, who lives in Clark. She called SROs, “a helpful way to introduce safety and support to a community of children who are already frightened.”
Other people at the meeting, which had been moved to the high school to accommodate a larger audience, disagreed.
“We’re running on a very tight, underfunded budget to begin with. What are we going to be content eliminating here? Because the money is not coming out of nowhere,” said Drew Kellerman, of Westfield. “There was an armed guard in Parkland. There was an armed guard in Columbine. It didn’t save anyone.”
Various community members advocated for several other changes, including the following:
- Increased dialogue between the district and community, which could include a subcommittee or parent education sessions
- More transparency in the communication of security plans or changes
- More in-depth protocols for after-school events, where untrained parent volunteers are facilitating activities and may not know what to do in the event of an emergency
- Making sure a safe, secure school environment is maintained, where students, including those with special needs, can learn without fear or anxiety
What do students have to say?
Westfield High School student Colin Sumner advocated for more student involvement in this process.
“No one is talking to the students. No one is training the students,” Sumner told the board. “If you’re training so many people to protect everyone else, why aren’t we just training everyone else at this point?”
“There still is fear inside the school, that I feel at least, and I’m sure other students feel it too,” Sumner added.
What happens next?
The presentation on proposed vestibule renovations previously scheduled for Tuesday night was not held during the meeting. Board member Gretchan Ohlig said the session was not held because the facilities committee is still working out details of the plans and is not ready to discuss these in detail with the public. The proposed entryway updates are to increase security.
Dolan encouraged anyone with additional questions about security to visit the district website.
Board President Peggy Oster said the district welcomes additional dialogue with the community.
“We do say a lot. The website says a lot. We do need people to listen too,” Oster said. “If we’re not getting the message out correctly to you, we’re willing to change.”