MAPLEWOOD, NJ — After months of advocacy by parents and students, South Orange Maplewood Board of Education passed its amended plans for crisis and emergency situations.

Policy 8420, Emergency and Crisis Situations, seen here with the proposed changes in red and green, passed unanimously at the November 18 meeting. This is the district’s working document; some wording was changed prior to the vote.

This comes after a Sept. 16 BOE meeting in which the mental stress of realistic Code Red drills were attested to by students, parents, and the director of security for the district, Thomas Shea.

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The changes give a nod to these experiences and include the direction that “Any procedures or regulations will be created with consideration for the age of students enrolled in the school and sensitive to the social and emotional well-being of students.”

In addition to a new policy that parents will be informed by the end of the school day that a drill has taken place, the following has been included:

 

1)  Staff and students will be informed that the active shooter, bomb threat or lockdown is a drill and not a real event while the drill is occurring, including via intercom/loudspeaker and Emergency Mass Notification (EMN) system. 

2)  Care for students during drills must be prioritized and included in every proposed drill plan, including (but not limited to) students caught in the hallway once a lockdown begins (to ensure that no child is left alone and without any supervision during a drill), the range of events and times of day which might find large groups of students outside of class, the manner in which students will be cared for if forced to exit school during inclement weather, and the accommodation of students with demonstrated anxiety or disabilities (including, but not limited to, students with IEPs and 504 plans).

 

Jennifer Serravallo, an independent literacy consultant, was part of a group of residents who worked since the spring with educators and mental health professionals to craft suggested changes to the policy . Serravallo, who lives in South Orange and has children in the school district herself, spoke at the Nov. 18 board meeting, thanking the board for the work done on the issue so far and offering assistance in its continued evolution in the future. 

Serravallo is gratified that it was passed. “Our towns should be really proud that we’ve responded to mental health research as well as the research that shows these drills” — the simulations in which children aren’t told that it is for practice and are made to find hiding spaces and be silent — “do not keep kids safer” than drills announced as such prior to their start, she said.

District parent Eve Levy is guardedly optimistic about the changes. “It sounds really good on paper,” said the mother of four, three of whom are at Columbia High School.  The South Orange resident felt reassured knowing that parents would be notified when drills happen, “because our kids text us about it anyway.”

Her worry is the logistics of implementing the updates in the policy. Levy gave the hypothetical example of a high school student with anxiety being in the cafeteria at the start of the drill. “Who’s going to be responsible to remember that’s the child with the 504,” she asked, referring to the plan that outlines accommodations for those with disabilities. The new policy will work best, she said, “if they back it up with resources and training.”

Serravallo noted that “the progress is incremental.” She is glad the policy will be reviewed each year; her group, as she noted in her speech during the public speaks portion of the meeting, will continue to press for changes such as “Prioritizing the training of adults and eliminating the need for children to participate in drills at all. As a reminder, nowhere in the law, legislative intent, or drill guides, does it indicate that students must participate” and “If and when students do participate, using tabletop exercises instead of drills. Tabletop exercises like the briefings we get on airplanes, the reminder to locate exits in a movie theater, or the preparation most adults do in workplaces, are less traumatic than simulations or re-enactments.”

She also said SOMSD is a leader in this area. “From the research I’ve done,” she said, “I don’t think there is another district in the state” that has responded to traumatizing emergency drills with the sweeping changes seen in this updated policy. “My hope is also that we can help other school districts. We have a lot of research and legal analysis that we are ready to share.”