NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – The notion that nothing is more important that students’ safety was the unifying theme for approximately 200 parents who showed up at the March 20 town hall meeting to share their views on school security issues. The school security and students’ safety is an equally important issue for both the school and the borough administrations as well as the police department.
The town hall meeting was hosted by the Board of Education (BOE), borough administration and the Police Department. Superintendent David Miceli, President of the BOE Adam Smith, Mayor Al Morgan and Police Chief Anthony Buccelli lead the informal meeting, but mostly they listened to parents and gathered their suggestions regarding further security enhancements. Better communications at all levels, faster information flow as well as improved procedural practices appeared to be on the top of the parents’ wish list. There also seemed to be a general consensus that parents are willing to pay more school taxes for added security. Moreover, they sounded off on the urgency to security improvements and some even offered their professional expertise to help the district.
The purpose of the town hall meeting was to find out what more can be done to keep children safe at schools, Smith said. He explained that the district already has upgraded its security systems at all schools. All schools now have security vestibules or “people traps” that require visitors to identify themselves before being buzzed in. The schools also have security cameras with direct video feed to the police department. The schools are also in the process of upgrading all interior doors with an automatic locking system. The exterior doors have been treated with a shutter proof tape. All school employees have identification swipe cards, Smith said.
The district is not just focusing on security features, but also trying to promote students' mental well-being. “We work hard with character education,” so that no student feels ostracized or marginalized, Smith said. He noted that 92 percent of the students participate in extra-curricular activities. The involvement helps them to stay connected with the community and “keep them happy,” Smith said.
“The borough and the BOE take school security very seriously,” Miceli said. The school district has close relationships with the police department and borough administration. The school officials and the police department have frequent conversations and security drills. Together they have developed safety and response plans, Miceli said. He noted that he can’t provide details on those plans.
Miceli explained that before the district came up with new security measures, Superintendent of Sandy Hook school district visited New Providence and provided valuable information. During the past summer the school administration and police department had a chance to talk to a Columbine High School official. The school district is keeping up with the latest technology and has regular emergency management evaluations, he said. He also pointed out that the police are familiar with the school buildings and they run their own drills at the district buildings while the school is out.
Buccelli explained the police department has learned a lot from Sandy Hook. The police also train all new teachers and conduct monthly drills. “We have plans in place,” he said, but added that every incident is different and sometimes the responders have to deviate from that plan.
One of the topics to which parents expressed is the need for added clarity of who to contact when they or their children notice that a student shows signs of mental distress or aggression. Some parents noted that when someone suspects bullying they know exactly who to contact. They would like to have a similar point person at each school to whom they or other students could confidentially express their fears or concerns.
Mary O’Keefe told a story of an incident two years ago where a suspended student posted pictures with a gun and acted aggressively around the school just before the senior prom. O’Keefe contacted the school but didn’t feel that her concern was taken seriously. She then contacted parents of other senior students and warned them about a potential danger.
Miceli explained that “stuff” happens at schools every day and the district has a protocol in place. The district has evaluation and intervention policies that it follows. However, it cannot share information of any individuals as the district is bound to confidentiality. Buccelli noted that if residents suspect something, they should call police. “We encourage you to tell us.” However, the police “can’t lock everyone up,” he said as the police operate within the limits of law.
Parents agreed that students and the teaching staff should be educated about the warning signs of mental health issues. O’Keefe suggested that the district utilize educational material produced by Sandy Hook Promise. Another parent suggested that these issues could be added to the health education curriculum. When a parent asked what the district’s needs are for mental health professionals, Miceli responded that the district has adequate counselors and school psychologists to handle the case load.
The recent lockdowns at the high school and Allen W. Roberts School had frustrated both parents and students. Parents were especially irked that they found out about the lockdown from their children who had texted them during the incidents. The email communication from the school came three hours later. The time it took to officially inform the parents about the pending situation was much too slow, they said.
Smith responded that the school administration’s first priority is the safety of the students at school. They put all their resources to resolving to situation at hand. They might not have enough or correct information available during the crisis. Once the situation had been resolved the parents were informed, Smith said. Technical issues may also have played a role since some parents were able to receive the email faster.
However, multiple parents expressed clearly that they want faster communications even if not all details of any given emergency are available. One parent suggested that a staff member be assigned to be in charge of communications during any event, allowing the administration to deal with resolving the situation and keeping students safe. The employee in charge of communications should then immediately notify parents of a pending situation and provide updates when more information becomes available.
Other parents said that they would like to have all emergency procedures and contact persons posted on the school website. The website should also have instructions to parents regarding what to do and what not to do in emergency situations. The students should also be educated about the emergency protocol so that they know what to do and what to expect during a crisis.
Parents also pointed out that children, especially in the elementary school, react differently to lockdowns or school emergencies. While some don’t seem to be affected by them, others may find them uncomfortable and scary. One parent asked if the schools could give out an age-appropriate script so that parents could explain the situation to their children and make them aware of things that may cause lockdown situations at their school. That script would keep all parents and children on a same page. Now children hear different versions or rumors of events and share them amongst their peers causing anxiety to some.
A parent of a high school student suggested that there be a buffer time after a lockdown so that the students and teachers can discuss and process the situation before getting back into the lesson plan. It was also suggested that there be a protocol of what kids should do during the lockdown. Someone pointed out that they should not text which many of them did during the latest incident in the high school. She noted that children were calm during the lockdown, and only became more anxious after they kept receiving texts back from their worried parents.
A parent of an elementary school age child said that her child found the backpack and lunch box search unpleasant after the lockdown was over and the students returned to their classrooms. A high school student said that he found the backpack search short and not thorough enough. The worst part of the lockdown was not knowing if the situation was real, he said.
Although the schools have new safety vestibules, a few parents noted that it seems very easy to get in. One parent said that a teacher whom she was following into the school would have let her in the building unless she had pointed out that she should be identified and buzzed in. She suggested that teachers and students be made aware not to hold a door for someone they don’t know.
Parents also raised a concern regarding after school activities when many outside organizations can access the school buildings and doors are often left open. They suggested that there should be a better protocol in place, perhaps limited access through only certain doors or some kind of identification swipe card for a trusted member of an organization or a club.
Borough resident Bryon Lynnehan, who has spoken about school safety at the recent Borough Council meetings, reiterated his goal of having two police officers at each of the borough schools. The town hall was divided on the issue, although many supported the idea of an armed officer at school premises, some were not so keen of having guns at schools. One parent suggested a poll in order to see how many parents, in fact, would like an armed officer or officers at school.
Furthermore, it was suggested that shutter proof tape be applied to all exposed windows.
The school administration, police and borough officials will now develop a plan based on suggestions made. We all recognize this is a community issue, Morgan said.