UNION, NJ – Information was presented to about 200 parents, students, and community members who attended a four-hour public meeting Thursday night, hosted by the school district, township administration and police department to review and discuss the events surrounding the lockdown incidents that occurred at Union High School on Friday, Jan. 31.
The meeting was held in response to parents and community concerns about the lack of accurate -- and the preponderance of inaccurate – information spread during the incidents, mostly through social media, compounding the fear and anxiety students, family members and the community experienced.
Participating in the event and seated at the front of the auditorium were Union High School Principal Mark Hoyt, Superintendent Gregory Tatum, Assistant Superintendents Gerry Benaquista and Annie Moses, School Board President Nancy Minneci, School Board Vice President Mary Lynn Williams, Union Police Director Daniel Zieser, Union Business Administrator Don Travisano, Union Assistant Business Administrator Bill Reyes, and Board of Education member Vito Nurfrio, liaison from the Board of Education to the Township of Union. Union High School’s head of security, William Spekhardt, and all of the high school vice principals were also in attendance at the meeting.
Tatum opened the meeting with a statement. “The Board of Education, the mayor’s office, and the Union police department met yesterday to discuss the recent lockdown at Union High School. All district procedures and first responder actions were followed under our existing safety protocol. In all emergency management situations, there are always after-action meetings. From our meetings, the Board of Education, the mayor’s office, and the police department have recognized your concerns. We will be meeting periodically to review and revise current communication protocols as well as emergency management procedures. We recognize distribution of information during emergency situations will be better served to combat the misinformation that only leads to unrest.”
Hoyt recapped the events that took place at the high school on Friday. Hoyt said two incidents occurred during the day, but the focus of the evening’s meeting was the second, full lockdown. [Hoyt outlined both incidents in an interview with TAPinto Union, published Feb. 4.] Regarding the second lockdown, Hoyt said at about 11:00 a.m., Union High School received a communication from Union Police indicating there was “a possibility of a situation, being that a student was potentially in possession of a firearm”. He said police arrived on scene and directed the school into the lockdown. “We immediately followed our lockdown protocol.” Hoyt said the Union Police Department took over control of the investigation, and from that point on dictated the scope of what was happening in the school.
Hoyt said sometime after the lockdown began, a pizza delivery person arrived at the caféteria door, per routine on Fridays, but could not gain access to the building. “He pounded on the door, which caused some panic among students. A number of the students fled from the cafeteria.” Hoyt said most of those students were brought back into the building, but approximately 25 made it to Burnet Middle School, Hannah Caldwell School, to their home, or texted their parents to let them know where they were. “All of those students were secured.”
During the course of the investigation, Union Police called in other law enforcement agencies, Hoyt added. Students remained in lockdown while a search for the weapon continued. The school administration assisted police with logistics of the building, helping them with their investigation. At about 1:45 p.m., Hoyt said, in coordination with the Union Police, the school moved to a modified lockdown, which “changes our procedures a little bit, but students are still required to remain in the classroom, and no one is allowed to go into the hallways.” The rooms were searched one-by-one. At approximately 3:15, the Union police gave the all-clear for students to be dismissed. Hoyt said they revised their usual exit procedures and all students exited through the front of the building, between 3:30 and 4:00.
Hoyt said one student was injured during the incident. “She was not trampled in a mass exodus,” he said. “She fell in the cafeteria.” Hoyt said the student was taken away by ambulance with a sprained arm. “Despite what went out on social media, she was not stabbed in the face by gang members running through the building with machetes,” added Hoyt. “That was not true. A number of the things that went out were not true. There were no gunshots in the building. In fact, it was determined there was not even a firearm in the building.”
“During the course of the day, we were all involved in assisting the police with their investigation and unable to put out a communication,” Hoyt said. “We put information out as soon as we were able to.” Hoyt’s first message went out about 2:30 p.m., and a final message at about 6:00 p.m., he said.
Next to detail events of the lockdown was Union Police Director Dan Zieser. He said what happened on Friday was the “culmination of what happened the day before.” Zieser said on Thursday a fight involving four female students occurred at the school, but no other details about how that fight related to the lockdown(s) on Friday was discussed.
Zieser talked about the early morning incident when police received a call about a student armed with a hammer inside the school. He said school security had already taken custody of the student with the hammer prior to the police arrival. While in police custody, the student provided information about another student who was possibly armed with a knife. Police followed that trail and found a student with a knife. He was also placed under arrest.
Zieser said after those incidents, a mother of another student called police and said, “my daughter says there’s a student in the high school armed with a gun.” At the meeting, Zieser said, “so now we’re thinking…did someone bring a gun to a knife fight?”
“I sent every officer I had on duty to the high school,” Zieser said. “We put it on lockdown, because at that point we don’t know what’s going on. The safety of your children is number one in all of our minds.”
As police descend on the school, Zieser said, he has no other officers covering the rest of the town. “We have car accidents, we had a car fire all going on at the same time.” Zieser said, per procedure, Union police headquarters called the county for assistance, “to relieve Union’s officers at the school so they can go back on the streets and protect the rest of the township.”
Explaining why such a massive show of force arrived at the high school that afternoon, Zieser said a new protocol from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office instructs police departments facing a “potential mass causality incident” to notify the Prosecutor’s Office immediately, even before the situation is confirmed, “even before my officers first arrive on the scene,” he said.
Unbeknownst to Zieser, he said, it was training day for the Union County Emergency Response Team. “The Prosecutor’s Office is getting a call for a possible mass causality at the same time we’re calling for additional county units to back us up,” he said. The county dispatched personnel from the Emergency Response Team training in Scotch Plains to the high school. “They show up in force…dogs, SWAT team, everybody shows. I thought it was overkill right from the beginning.”
Zieser said it took the police some time to get everything under control due to the size of the building. “As for communication, to be honest with you, that was the last of my concern. My concern was the safety of everybody in the building….safety of the students, safety of the teachers, the safety of my officers. That was my main concern and will always be my main concern. “About the day’s events, Zieser said, “everything culminated into one incident.”
About 35 audience members lined up at one of the two microphones to await their turn to address the administration and township officials.
Much of the audience’s questions and comments surrounded the district’s emergency plans, particularly around communication. One parent said, “you need to make a communication plan ahead of time, not deal with it during a lockdown”.
“The only way to battle misinformation is with communication,” said one parent. “We need a public information officer on site with regular updates [during emergencies].”
“A hundred parents standing on that corner for four hours and not being told anything is ridiculous,” said a parent.
Benaquista replied, “we are talking about ongoing communication to the community. In the future, we will be getting ongoing communication out throughout the event and then afterwards get a final communication about event. We will find ways to do that in the future.”
While Tatum and Hoyt said all students have their IDs checked prior to entering the building every day, several students contradicted this by saying they walk into the building, even Monday [the first day after the incidents], either without their ID or with something that looks like an ID, but is not. “There is careless ID check,” said a parent. “Even on Monday morning security was lax.” Moses said on Monday morning “every ID was checked; every backpack looked at. We had all hands on deck.” About checking IDs, Hoyt said, “we check IDs every single day. We get attitude every single day [from students]. But we do it anyway.”
Parents and students addressed the social/emotional component to the incidents. “This needs to be addressed,” said a parent. “The situation was traumatic. Kids were locked in a room for four hours. It feels real in the moment. Very real.”
A student added, “I feel that the administration needs to understand how these students feel.” A parent said, “this whole situation was traumatizing. Kids were peeing in buckets. Four hours in a school locked in a room, not knowing what’s going on, not knowing if you’re safe.”
“There are a lot of our students here tonight,” said Hoyt. To them, he said, “I love you guys. We care about these kids. We know how scary it was. It was scary for everybody in the building. I hate that all of you as 15-, 16-, 17-year olds had to go through that. My goal now becomes, has been and will continue to be, what can I do so you never have to go through that again, so you never have to come to school and worry about that. I don’t want you to feel unsafe.”
One parent asked how the school was going to immediately detect, and deter kids from bringing,weapons onto school property. Tatum said, “everything is on the table” as far as changes in protocol, staff training, security procedures, including bringing in more security personnel.
Regarding the students were ran from the cafeteria, one parents said her son ran to Club Metro and was told by a police officer and a teacher to go back to the school. “Why would a group of kids be brought back into a dangerous situation?” the parent asked. Zieser said police needed to get a headcount, that the school is responsible for each and every student. “We couldn’t leave them at Club Metro,” he said. Tatum added they are looking at alternate evacuation sites. “We’re talking about lessons learned here,” he said.