LIVINGSTON, NJ – At a special school safety and security open forum hosted by members of the Livingston Township Council, school administrators and top brass from the Livingston Police Department (LPD) on Wednesday, a presentation on how officials work together to protect Livingston students described select plans for continued and forthcoming improvements and addressed residents’ concerns.
Throughout the evening, local dignitaries stressed the many ways in which the presentation’s opening slide rang true.
“There is nothing we take more seriously than the safety of our students and staff,” the slide said. “We are constantly practicing, assessing and improving.”
Panelists for the evening included Police Chief Craig Handschuch, Captain Gary Marshuetz and LPD School Security Liaison Kevin Mullaney; Mayor Ed Meinhardt and Township Manager Barry Lewis; Superintendent of Schools Christina Steffner, Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) President Pamela Chirls, Principal and School Safety Specialist for the district Cindy Healy, Chairperson of the PT Council Town Safety Committee Martha Ackermann and Livingston Public Schools (LPS) Business Administrator Steve Robinson.
Officials on all sides of the table agreed that when it comes to safety in Livingston’s schools, the town, police and schools work closely together to ensure that all facets of safety are being covered; that the latest technology and techniques are in place and continuously reviewed and improved upon; and that everyone is working closely in tandem to stay informed and responsive.
During the question-and-answer portion of the forum, common concerns among parents included the potential of hiring armed security guards to be present in the schools, security precautions exercised in outside recess areas, and what parents should do in an active-shooter situation.
Chirls responded that, although the board has briefly discussed the idea of armed security, a push has not been made toward it. However, she said that if more community members felt it necessary, the LBOE would delve deeper into the feasibility of that option.
Steffner and Healy discussed that recess personnel have also been trained and briefed in the proper protocol to take if someone not meant to be on school grounds appears on a playground. They also confirmed that no individuals apart from students, staff and administrators should be on the premises during school hours without the school’s principal and/or police being alerted if a threat seems imminent.
In an active-shooter situation, the LPD fervently advised parents to resist the urge to go to the school, which would impede their ability to establish staging and command areas and get students to a safe location expediently. The officers reiterated that the township and schools have detailed plans in place on how to deal with these situations and quickly communicate to parents, through numerous channels, what is happening at an affected site.
Steffner added that parents should also curtail their impulses to put non-school or police department information out on social media sites. She cautioned that even if parents have been in contact with someone on site, that this information is representative of only one aspect of the entire situation and could paint a false overall picture that could add to the hysteria, and potentially put loved ones in a more harmful situation.
Unless the communication comes from the town, schools or police, Steffner said that it should not be viewed as comprehensively accurate and should therefore not be repeated in a public forum.
Handschuch concluded that if a community member has any concerns, they should contact the police.
“It’s never a burden to us for you to pick up the phone and call our police desk,” said Handschuch. “Don’t hesitate to ever give us a call.”
During the presentation, it was revealed that under legal agreement, the LPD is armed with the schools’ emergency operations plans (mandated and reviewed by the state and the LPD), floor plans of all school buildings and real-time access to school cameras should an emergency situation arise. The police conduct safety walk-throughs in the schools bi-annually, tabletop exercises detailing a variety of potential scenarios and safety drills with staff that take place once a month in all buildings.
In February, 100 police officers and other local and state law enforcement agencies completed active-shooter training. Additionally, police presence is commonplace in all LPS buildings.
“We have many activities that bring officers into the schools so that children are comfortable with their presence,” said Healy, who regularly receives state and local safety training to remain current. “The LPD sends officers daily to walk through the buildings, which familiarizes the officers with the actual sites and helps the children to remain calm in their presence.”
According to Healy, Mullaney (who undergoes continual training, including that with the National Israeli Police Academy) has been instrumentally involved in 99 percent of all of the walk-throughs and drills in the schools. Following these activities, Mullaney gives feedback on things that went well and things that can be changed.
Drills vary in nature and include lock-downs, active-shooter scenarios, shelter-in-place, code yellows (for cardiac situations) and evacuations.
District Safety Teams are comprised of members from all schools and their administrators. Teams are tasked with meeting frequently to review their plans and discuss new safety tools and techniques that are coming to market that might improve their plans.
Additionally, LPS has been subjected to two safety audits over the past three years by the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Preparedness and independent consultant Buckley Peterson Global, according to Wednesday’s presentation. Recommendations made during these audits have been effectively implemented.
The presentation also revealed that several safety improvements have been incorporated in all LPS buildings this year. Classrooms are now equipped with phone lines that offer 911 access; security cameras have been upgraded for real-time police access with an accompanying app for administrators that allows them to access cameras remotely; speakers have been added to school bathrooms; and panic buttons have been strategically placed throughout school buildings so that anyone can instantly contact the LPD.
Police can also remotely lock all doors and disable swipe cards in all LPS buildings. On the horizon for 2018-19, LPS is looking to upgrade walkie-talkies and add ADA-compliant strobe lights.
Piggybacking on a rising national awareness that safety is not just an issue of gun control but also mental health, LPS is working to address issues of isolation and bullying early on. To this end, LPS recently fielded a Culture and Climate survey that asks several questions on how well students feel their voices are heard and assess how included they feel in their school community.
“We recognize that often the children that are involved with this aggressive, violent behavior are also children who do not fit in well or have mental health issues,” said Steffner. “We realize that nothing can replace a healthy culture and climate in which kids realize there are adults around who know and care about them.”
Student Assistance Programs are promoted and Student Assistance Counselors are available to all students within the district, including at the elementary school level, which is uncommon of many other districts, according to Wednesday’s presentation.
Heritage Middle School and Livingston High School have CORE Teams in place that help identify and provide early intervention for students in need. Counselors at Mt. Pleasant Middle School are now graduating with the current class up to Heritage so that the students feel there is someone they know who is following them on their journey.
This meeting was offered as a free public forum outside regular council and board of education meetings. The next LBOE meeting will be held on May 7.