UNION, NJ – The two separate lockdown incidents at Union High School on Friday, fueled by a frenzy of rumors and speculation, escalated the fears of parents and the community of unfounded violence occurring in the school.
In an interview with TAPinto Union, Union High School Principal Mark Hoyt outlined the sequence of events that led to, and happened during, the two lockdowns at the school on Friday. According to Hoyt, all indications suggest the two events were unrelated, although the investigation by Union police is ongoing.
The first incident began at about 7:45 Friday morning, Hoyt said, when it was reported that a student was in a hallway carrying a hammer and not acting in a “socially acceptable manner”. The student was confronted by security, who seized the hammer from him. Hoyt said the student did not swing the hammer at any individuals, but did hit a locker with it. “He did not swing the hammer at a security guard,” added Hoyt. “The picture that ended up on the internet looks as though he was swinging it at our security guard. He was not.” Hoyt said there was “no melee, no fight. We saw him with the hammer, and we removed it from him.”
Hoyt said the student was brought to the office and Union police were called. “In the course of talking with that student,” said Hoyt, “he indicated that there was potentially another student who had a pocket knife.” Hoyt said that student was immediately brought down to the office and asked if he was in possession of a knife. The student said he did have a knife, which he handed over. Hoyt said it was a “Swiss Army-type knife.”
Hoyt said a modified lockdown was instituted as soon as the morning incident began and lasted about 45 minutes, after which students resumed their regular school day.
According to Union police Captain Scott Breslow, it was an 18-year-old student who brought the hammer to school from his home. Breslow added that the student “was looking for another student due to a disagreement with a girl.” He was arrested by Union police. Breslow said the student with the knife is 15 years old. Charges for both students are pending and the investigation is continuing. Breslow said neither student was involved in the second incident at the high school.
Later in the morning, shortly after 11:00, Hoyt said the school received a call from Union police stating they had received a 9-1-1 call reporting there was a “weapon in the building and the school should immediately lockdown.” Hoyt did not know the exact nature of the call to Union police.
Procedurally, Hoyt said, when police are on the scene, they dictate the scope of the investigation. Hoyt said school administration and security assisted police as they investigated the incident. He said a full lockdown directs students and staff to stay on the floor, away from windows and doors, with blinds drawn. “We went full lockdown because there was potentially a firearm in the building. A full lockdown is scary for everyone,” said Hoyt. “As much as we practice and drill it, it’s not the same as when it’s the real deal. Everyone was on edge.”
At one point early in the full lockdown, and with about 200 students in each of the two school cafeterias, pizza delivery person(s) arrived at the back door of the cafeteria to deliver the school’s regular Friday lunch pizzas.
Hoyt said students heard pounding on the door, and some students panicked. The full lockdown necessitated that there could be no response from school personnel to the knocking. “They thought someone was trying to get into the building,” he said. Hoyt said it was then that about 25 students ran from the cafeteria and out of the building. “In the course of leaving, a student fell and sprained her arm. She was removed by ambulance to receive medical attention.” Hoyt said at least a few of the students ran to Burnet Middle School. “Everyone else in the building remained secure,” added Hoyt.
“Over the course of the day, social media was blowing up with what was going on,” said Hoyt. “Students were obviously scared and texting their parents, and parents were calling the school, but in a lockdown we cannot answer the phones.” Hoyt said at several points throughout the day a police officer did go outside to address the parents gathered on school property to give updates as to what was going on.
“The void of information was filled with speculation and rumor,” said Hoyt, “everything from gangs roaming the halls of Union High School with machetes, that a girl got stabbed in the face, that there were shots fired, gun shots, that students were jumping from the second floor to escape. None of which were true. But it was posted, and re-posted, and shared, and really added to a lot of additional anxiety for everybody involved.”
“I can’t speak to the extent to which it [social media postings] affected the police investigation, but they’re seeing and hearing all of these things, receiving calls about it,” said Hoyt.
“At this point,” said Hoyt, “we’re still waiting on police to do their investigation. Our role (school administration and security) is to assist the investigation in any way we can…provide keys, provide logistics, provide information.” Hoyt said based on the police investigation, Union police called for K-9 and SWAT support.
According to Hoyt, at about 1:30, when the SWAT and K-9 teams cleared the second floor, room by room, police gave school administrators permission to move to a modified lockdown. Police continued to sweep and clear the building until about 3:15 when the administration was given the go-ahead to dismiss students. Hoyt said out of an abundance of caution, students were dismissed wing by wing through the main entrance of the building.
Hoyt said Union High School is about 400,000 sq. ft. On Friday, there were about 2,500 people in the building. “It takes time [to clear a building that size].”
No detailed update on the full lockdown is currently available from Union police.
“We followed orders from Union police in accordance with our emergency policies,” said Hoyt. “It was scary for students and for staff. It absolutely was. But, it’s the best possible outcome to an incredibly tense and scary situation.”
“Except for the one student who sprained her arm, everyone was safe. No one was harmed,” added Hoyt. “A lot of the hub-bub on social media was adding fuel to this fire. Students were adding to it, parents were adding to it.”
“I’m not blaming social media for the events of the day,” continued Hoyt, “but I think it added to the difficulty of a stressful situation. It’s so easy to share wrong information, and we weren’t in a position to get information out as quickly as I would have liked. We couldn’t. It wasn’t possible because we were busy securing the kids and ensuring the safety and security of the students and staff. The safety of the children was my primary concern.”
Hoyt said he suspects rumors and speculation posted on different social media platforms added to the length of the full lockdown. “As a parent, I can relate,” added Hoyt. “But we gave as much information out as soon as we could. I know that’s frustrating. I get the frustration level.”
At about 2:00 Friday afternoon, Hoyt sent a voice message to parents with limited information about the lockdown. His message read:
"Good afternoon. This is Mr. Hoyt calling from Union High School. Earlier today the Union Police Department received information that led to a lockdown at Union High School. Police officers took control of the situation and have been assessing the credibility of the information received."
“The High School currently remains in a modified lockdown while officers secure the building, classroom by classroom. Despite the information being widely circulated on social media, no students have been injured and the current situation has nothing to do with any other situations during the day. As soon as the situation is cleared by the Union Police Department, all students will be dismissed.”
Later Friday evening, Hoyt sent a letter to parents outlining events of the day. Click here to read Hoyt’s letter. “Thankfully, there was no threat to safety, no weapons found during the full lockdown.”
In the aftermath of Friday’s lockdowns, Hoyt said the administration will review the communication policies and discuss possible ways to provide some information to the public. “We can’t share too much information, but just to let parents know the situation is controlled,” he understands would be helpful.
Hoyt added school policy states if the police are conducting an investigation, they become the spokespeople for it. “It’s their investigation, we don’t want to hinder or jeopardize their investigation,” he said.
“For a bad situation, the outcome was great,” said Hoyt. From a procedural standpoint, Hoyt said the school follows state mandated emergency procedures. “I don’t know procedurally if I would have done anything differently,” he said. “The communication piece is problematic for me. Our inability to communicate to parents and the community to let them know what was going on bothers me.”
After the lockdown, Hoyt said he watched as one classroom was dismissed. “As every single student walked out of the class, each one hugged and thanked the teacher on their way out.” Hoyt added, “Union High School is a safe school. Our teachers and staff did a fantastic job”.
A public Q & A meeting to discuss and review Friday's lockdown incidents will be held Thursday, 6:00 p.m. at the high school.