SOUTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. — An impending snowstorm didn't deter a large crowd of South Plainfield residents from attending Tuesday evening’s special meeting on school safety and security.

A joint effort between the school district, borough, and police department, the meeting focused on safety procedures and security measures as well as the importance of following district protocols. Speakers included Superintendent of Schools Dr. Noreen Lishak and Board of Education President William Seesselberg, Police Chief James Parker and Lt. Lloyd McNelly, and Mayor Matthew Anesh and Council President Robert Bengivenga.

“We are all here this evening because our school personnel, the Borough of South Plainfield, and the police department, along with you, the parents, guardians, and the entire school community, play an important part in keeping children safe in our schools,” Lishak told the more than 100 residents gathered in the high school auditorium.

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“I want to commend the board of education along with the mayor ... We are very lucky to have their support regarding not only the safety of our community but of our schools,” added Parker. “I understand the heightened awareness of what is happening right now [and] we are doing the best we can and assure you that we are taking every possible measure we can to ensure the safety of the children, teachers, and citizens throughout the community.”

In the wake of last month’s shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, safety and security measures in South Plainfield are being strengthened and protocol is being strongly enforced. Effective last week and until further notice, anyone looking to enter a building must show identification; no one will be allowed in a school without an appointment unless it is to pick up a child; and items must be dropped off in building vestibules. Routine and mandated drills (fire, lockdown and shelter in place) will continue; locks that appeared easily comprised have been replaced; and document readers to check identification will be installed in vestibules over the coming weeks. Additionally, police are monitoring school security cameras in real time and an officer will be in each building full-time through the end of the school year.

“I realize this is an inconvenience to some, but in the interest of security, these procedures must be followed …” said Lishak. “The district will continue to add additional security measures that will further enhance the security of the building, however, the remainder of security upgrades cannot be discussed with the public.”

During the meeting, McNelly provided those in attendance with statistics on school shooting deaths in the United States. While Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit organization focused on gun safety, reports  that 19 incidents have occurred already in 2018, McNelly said that is not truly the case.

“The organization classifies any shooting incident that occurs on a school campus at any time of day, whether or not it is related to a school function, as a ‘school shooting,’” he said, noting that of 19 cases, seven were targeted attacks — including two drug deals gone bad and three drive-bys — four were accidental discharges, three were unknown firings, two were suicide, and one was a BB gun.

“Of that total, just two were actually school shootings; one being Parkland and the other that just recently happened,” said McNelly, referencing the March 3 incident where a Central Michigan University student killed his parents on campus. “I am not trying to downplay anything, even one is one too many, but is not as bad as we are being led to believe.’

The meeting also provided residents the opportunity to submit questions in writing on a range of topics, including but not limited to, the March 14 National School Walkout, funding for the police officers, installation of metal detectors or bulletproof windows, and more.

According to Lishak, the district is viewing March 14 as a day to ‘understand political change’ with a ‘focus on civics.’ In social studies classes, lessons on political activism will take place with no discussion on guns or gun violence.’ The consequences for those who participate in the walkout, she said, will be the same as those imposed for cutting class.

Seesselberg assured parents that the district was in ‘no way endorsing’ the walkout but rather ‘respects the students rights to express their opinions…. without determent to themselves or others.’

Full time police officers in the schools through the end of June will cost approximately $200,000 and Interim Business Administrator Jim Damato told TAPinto South Plainfield that the money will come out of the district’s emergency reserve fund and its ‘latchkey’ before and after care account.

“Each year, money is added to the emergency reserve account and the department of education is allowing us to use it for security upgrades and personnel right now,” said Damato. “Additionally, we have a reserve in the latchkey account and money in there is being allocated toward security for those hours before and after school.”

While all the elementary schools and the middle school are scheduled to get new windows next year through bond referendum funding, Seesselberg said the district is currently reviewing the specs to see what, if anything, can be added in terms of security. The district, he said, is limited to the funds allocated through the referendum and bulletproof windows are not recommended by the fire department.

Although both school and borough officials do not favor the installation of metal detectors at this time, Lishak and Anesh agree other safety measures, such as process in which students are randomly scanned and/or searched, could be an option.

“We could come up with a way to have a method to implement this as an additional level of protection. It would be easier and more effective,” said Anesh, adding, “It is one more deterrent…”

Lishak agreed. “Once you start to do this and the students start to realize they could get randomly searched they will be less likely to bring anything into the schools,” she said.

Just this month, three separate incidents were reported at two different South Plainfield School buildings and, as a result, several questions were posed to the panel regarding the process for determining credibility.

“Any situation that is coming our way — whether it is a threat or a non-credible threat — we are following through from A-Z,” said Parker, adding, “The incidents that we have dealt with in the past week, week and half have all been non-credible, but we take every threat and every situation seriously.”

While parents will continue to be informed should an incident occur the superintendent stated that, in most cases, specific details will not be released. All threats, she said, will be investigated by the police and district and a psychological evaluation by a district-appointed physician will be required before a student may return to school.

Along with mandatory drills, increased police presence, enhanced and enforced security protocols, Anesh said the borough will continually work with the school district and police to implement measures ‘that ensure our community and our children are safe.’ “We all have to have to be involved,” he said.

According to Lishak, the district’s ‘strong partnership’ with the borough and police department ‘sets it apart’ and working together is necessary to ‘ensure South Plainfield children are safe.’ “Thank you all for coming out. It really shows how much you care about your children,” said the superintendent. “I really appreciate the commitment South Plainfield has to their children, school and community …”

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