BRIDGEWATER, NJ - When disseminating information regarding potential safety incidents, the district’s method of communication is to reach out to those people directly affected by the situation so as to minimize alarm in unsubstantiated circumstances, according to Superintendent Russell Lazovick.
Lazovick said the district communicated appropriately in connection with two incidents in early October that, although potential safety concerns, turned out to be no cause for alarm.
The first was on a bus at Crim Primary School after school, which, Lazovick said, started as a conversation between multiple students that led to a concern.
Bridgewater Township Police Lt. John Mitzak said it involved an 8-year-old child, but the threat was not found to be credible.
“Police searched the child’s backpack and the child’s residence,” Mitzak said. “No weapons were found.”
Mitzak and Lazovick declined to elaborate on the nature of the threat.
Lazovick said the district followed strict protocol in contacting the parents whose children would have been effected by the incident only, and not spreading information to the entire school and district.
“The staff did exactly what we would expect, and they contacted the appropriate people and followed every step of the regulations,” he said. “We never want parents to have a child come home from school and share what may or may not be accurate and have that cause alarm.”
Lazovick said the district policy is to reach out to the parents of the students affected only when it is a confined situation that doesn’t impact the entire district.
“When we believe there might be a student sharing something that might be a cause for concern but isn’t, we send information out to parents connected with the situation to let them know we were aware of it, followed every step we were supposed to and the situation was deemed to be unsubstantiated,” he said. “We determine everyone is safe.”
Later that same week, Lazovick said, there was an incident at the Bridgewater-Raritan High School, and an email was sent to all the parents of students at the school only. Though he declined to give specifics on the incident, Lazovick said protocol was followed in this instance too.
“We were aware that people may be talking, and protocol was followed,” he said.
The initial report, Lazovick said, could have impacted the school, but the investigation found that it was an inaccurate report, so an email went out to the parents of high school students to attempt to negate any rumors about what had happened.
Lazovick said the number of times each week that they have to follow up on incidents reported in the schools is more than they would like to think, but they only communicate them if they are impacting students, and only so families are prepared for conversations that may be coming up.
“In every situation, safety comes first,” he said. “If we get a report, we always assume it may be legitimate and follow it to find out if the report is accurate or poses a threat. We would never knowingly put students in a dangerous situation.”
Lazovick said the problem regarding these incidents that are deemed to be unsubstantiated is when adults start to talk on social media and off, and rumors spread about what may or may not have happened.
“I think a great deal of these problems came from the fact that parents were concerned by the lack of specificity,” he said. “That almost always comes from the fact that it was not a situation.”
“When specifics are provided, it is because the facts are confirmed,” he added. “We don’t want to stress people when there is no cause for concern.”
When a select group of the district receives an email about an isolated incident that does not affect the entire district, Lazovick said, it is to say the situation was unfounded and baseless and to let parents know that the district was aware of the report and it was handled.
“We want to encourage students and parents to communicate with the building administration if they think something is wrong,” he said. “But we don’t want people sharing information that is not theirs to share when it involves students or their families.”
Lazovick said he responded to some concerns from parents regarding both incidents, and they were very understanding once he had explained the district’s process for informing the community.
Basically, Lazovick said, it comes down to making sure parents and the community at large understand how the district communicates.
“If we don’t communicate anything, parents don’t know we are aware of the situation and handled it, and then they come back and ask why we didn’t tell them,” he said. “But we informed the people who were directly impacted.”
Much of the conversation, Lazovick said, happens on social media, and it comes down to understanding that Facebook and Twitter are not necessarily the places to go for the most accurate information about the district.
“Social media, unless it is the district’s Twitter or website, is never the answer for accurate information going on in the district,” he said. “We are trying to minimize the stress and conversation because we stray further from the facts when we don’t.”
Lazovick said the goal is to send out as concise information as possible.
“Not everyone at Crim was talking about the incident, but if we send the email to all of Crim, suddenly everyone is talking,” he said. “We want to focus on what is important, and we don’t want to spread an issue so that more are talking about it when they aren’t even impacted.”
For the future, Lazovick is asking people to be responsible when they talk.
“We are trying to keep these conversations to a minimum to minimize impact and to keep it to individual students, so hopefully when they get information, they know it is for them,” he said. “If something is going to impact a child and therefore the family, we will try to get the information out in the best possible way.”
Lazovick said it comes down to the district being more clear on how communications about these kinds of incidents will be targeted and why. He said they need to do a better job, especially with parents of younger students, to let them know how they communicate information so they understand exactly what an email means.
“It will only include information that is necessary to share to minimize the conversations that everyone will have,” he said. “We are trying to model a responsible conversation.”
“When you get an email that it was unsubstantiated, we are aware, but there was nothing to it, so there is no need to stress,” he added.
Lazovick said people often feel they are entitled to all the information, but the district can’t always confirm or deny certain things.
“We cannot possibly have a communications plan that answers every question everyone has,” he said. “When things are unconfirmed, we will share that it was unconfirmed. We don’t want parents to be stressed that they are hearing things and the school district is not giving them anything.”
“For a lot of people, this was the first time they were getting this kind of communication, and it was not to raise concern,” he added.
Lazovick praised the administrations at both schools for their responses and the communications sent out to parents.
But his biggest concern remains the conversations on social media.
“In the month of September, there were three major issues that had to reach to my level that were all connected to social media, and we had to have district involvement because of social media,” he said. “In October, we had another two.”
Lazovick said the district is working on building a separate website to help parents address the issue of technology, especially social media. He said there is going to be information about the Wait Until 8th campaign, which encourages families to not give students a smartphone until eighth grade at the earliest.
“We want to make people aware of the organization and the resources they provide,” he said. “We encourage its use, but adults have to be aware of certain things, and we want to help them avoid certain mistakes.”
“I don’t know that we would 100 percent endorse the program, but we are trying to get it out as another option for parents looking for information about how to teach technology,” he added.
Lazovick said they are all learning about technology as it is constantly changing.
“At its most base level, there is nothing on social media that is private, and people seem to forget that,” he said. “The second it is on the Internet, the opportunity for it to be widespread is always present.”
“We have to be better communicators, and sometimes that is not saying anything,” he added.
The incidents came the same week as the district’s presentation on safety and steps being taken to improve safety in the schools.
“We are moving forward with our plans, facilities, communications, processes and procedures,” Lazovick said. “We have been working on this now for two years to makes sure that when we do it, we are making all the right investments and changes.”
“We continue to publicize that work because we want people to be aware when they see changes, we want them to know what and why,” he added. “Basically, the information that goes out is what people need to know.”