WEST ORANGE, NJ - Sadly, school shootings are not new. In fact, the earliest recorded school shooting occurred in 1764 when four Lenape Indians killed a schoolmaster and students in Greencastle, Pennsylvania. With the 25th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in April; the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007; and the December, 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the struggle to come to grips with the senselessness and depth of these tragedies has spawned school districts everywhere to increase security protocols in an effort to protect our children.
West Orange is a school district of 7,200 students. In September, 2013, Interim Superintendent James O'Neill alerted parents that several security improvements had been instituted in the 11 public schools. In addition, the West Orange Police Department conducted an Active Shooter Drill in July, 2013, organized by Lt. John Morella that included neighboring police, Sheriff's officers, teachers, parents and students. The drill was filmed by Pictanniny Arsenal for use as a training tool, and Montclair State University will be releasing a documentary about the event in the near future.
Also in July, 2013, an Ad Hoc Committee was formed to discuss the possibility of relocating polling sites from the schools to other locales. However, some inherent difficulties existed with the switch. New Jersey State Statute 19:8-3. Schoolhouses and public buildings; other locations; certification of expenses establishes public schools as polling locations, and the decision as to where polling sites will be located is determined not by West Orange municipal government or the school district, but by the Essex County Clerk's Office.
To date, a list of potential alternative sites has been sent to the County but not approved; and letters have been mailed to those sites. The sites do not have to agree, and the County will approve only by a strict set of criteria.
With tomorrow's Primaries voters will head to 8 of the 11 West Orange Public schools to cast their votes. Parents Melissa Evans and Debbie Korczukowski continue to lobby for new sites.
A petition to have voting locations removed from the schools can be found here.
Interim Superintendent James O'Neill, who noted that school districts are beginning to address the issue of taking voting out of the schools, has been supportive throughout the year and said of Tuesday's Primaries, "I have authorized all the schools that are polling places to hire two Aides for the day (during school hours). They will have cell phones and can call 911 or report minor issues to the main office. They will be stationed as the principal sees fit at the entrance or in the voting area."
He continued, "The WOPD will have directed patrols drive by polling places more regularly than usual. Closing school is not an option - we would be short our 180 days and jeopardize state aid. It is not ideal but I am sure we will be fine. If parents are not satisfied they have the option of keeping their child home. At this point I think the focus should be on 2015 and, more importantly, 2016."
St. Cloud parent Debbie Korczukowski noted, "I'm not sending my sons to school on any election days without any assurance that extra security will be provided. While I commend Mr. O'Neill for trying to assist, adding more aides with cell phones doesn't cut it for me."
Board of Education member Laura Lab told the Alternative press,"At the New Jersey School Boards Association legislative meeting, we discussed the issue and the committee is in support of getting voting out of the schools or at least having the municipalities pay for the security,"
Lab went on to say, "I had proposed that the county government be responsible for the cost or supplying of the officers since it is the county clerk that sets the polling sites and are responsible for elections themselves. The delegates liked that idea but in deference to the smaller counties they do not have the resources that Essex, Bergen or Hudson may have."
Mayor Robert Parisi said, "The County may not approve all of the alternate locations; for various reasons they may fall short of the requirements for acceptable locations. I still believe schools should be closed on Election Day, but I understand the position of the schools."
"The situation is not perfect, but we will do what we can to protect voters and students. We will have an additional police presence for the primaries," he continued.
Council President Susan McCartney, who was part of Ad Hoc team, noted in her letter to alternative polling locations around town, "We are learning of more and more districts tackling the issue. We know Fairfield, Livingston and Chatham Borough have approved alternate polling sites rather than using their schools as voting locations.
"It is also interesting to note that the issue is spreading nationwide...including the Essex County town of Glen Ridge. I am proud and pleased to think of West Orange as one of these front runners."
"This unconventional, proactive initiative to relocate polling sites is underway in West Orange," McCartney told the Alternative Press.
To date there have been no security or safety issues reported at the schools that are used as polling locations.
Although the response from county and state level government has been lackluster, Gregory parent Melissa Evans remains resolute in her commitment to lobby for new polling sites.
"It's all about keeping our kids safe. Period," she noted.