WEST ORANGE, NJ – West Orange Superintendent of Schools Dr. J. Scott Cascone recently acknowledged the victims and the promptness of the first responders to the recent mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas during last week’s West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting.

“I think that anytime things like that happen, even though those were not school settings, we think about this as a kind of ‘what if,’” said Dr. Cascone as he announced that the district has been taking several “proactive steps” to ensure the safety of staff and students.

Cascone added that the district is “putting the finishing touches on a revised Emergency Management Plan,” which was developed in collaboration with security consultant firm StoneGate Associates.

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“We’ll be providing training to our administration this summer [and] to all staff as early as possible in the school year as we can,” he said.

In addition to the security audit, also completed by StoneGate, Dr. Cascone also said the district is looking to receive funding for the items recommended in the audit through a grant and the West Orange Township.

“I still believe that the best way to ensure safe schools is by creating schools that are welcoming; that are open, where students feel supported…as individuals and validated as individuals,” he said. “But I just wanted you to know that school security continues to be a priority for the board and continues to be a priority for myself as your superintendent.”

Later in the meeting, Dr. Cscone concluded the annual HIB (Harassment, Intimidation & Bullying) and SSDS (Student Safety Data Sheets; previously known as the EVVRS) reports for the 2018-19 school year. The two reports outlined the number of incidents of harassment, bullying, school violence and vandalism recorded throughout the school year.

During the 2018-19 school year, there was a total of 110 reported instances of harassment and intimidation, with 45 of those instances found to be confirmed, according to Dr. Cascone. He explained that under previous regulations, alleged instances did not need to be reported, but that this changed as of 2018.

“I’ve often said one is too many,” he said. “But I think when you consider the number of students we have interacting in our buildings every day and the fact that a lot of this is about learning for students—they’re not self-actualized adults; they’re teenagers; they’re pre-teenagers, managing a lot of different things.”

According to Cascone, there were eight instances at Gregory Elementary; five at Hazel; one at Mt. Pleasant; four at Kelly; two at Redwood; four at St. Cloud; 12 at Washington; one at Edison Central Six; 15 at Liberty Middle School; four at Roosevelt; and five at West Orange High School (WOHS).

Having served as the anti-bullying coordinator for his previous district, Cascone said he found the current data to be “interesting,” but that the explanations behind why certain schools have higher instance rates are “complex.”

“It can have anything to do from training, to school climate, to an aberration in that particular class; but rest assured that there are a couple blips on the radar of the data I’ll be looking into,” he said.

In the last year, there were also 125 total incidents of violence and vandalism, which Cascone noted includes the 45 confirmed incidents from the HIB report. He also said that three of the incidents included possession of Swiss Army Knives, but they “were not accompanied by threats,” according to Cascone.

He added that 13 of the 20 total incidents of abuse reported this year were confirmed. There were also incidents involving marijuana possession and a number of drug suspensions related to vaping.

In order to process the information, Dr. Cascone mentioned that he would like to focus on adopting a strategic approach to understanding how these incidents are dealt with and prevented within the district.

Following the Aug. 8 special WOBOE meeting, the superintendent also gave an update on the proposed November referendum.

He explained that after listening to the board, community members and stakeholders, it was clear that the board preferred a referendum in order to look at and update the district’s HVAC systems, repair Washington’s retaining wall and other important district facilities.

According to Cascone, the board has embarked on “a very aggressive timeline to get that up and running” and has hired an architect through an RFP “based upon the idea that [the district was] going to go out for a November referendum.”

Based on recent feedback from experts and the community, Casone determined that it is not in the district’s “best interest to move forward as aggressively as [it] had originally planned.”

According to the superintendent, a comprehensive Long-Range Facilities Plan was already conducted and was about to be updated for the many projects that need to be completed throughout the district. However, as the superintendent was discussing this at the special meeting, he and the board wondered when the district last completed a full-scale facilities evaluation.

Although Dr. Cascone described that the “lion’s share of that facilities assessment has been conducted,” he said that another facilities assessment was conducted by Honeywell during the Energy Savings Improvement Program (ESIP).

“But what has been the communication between Honeywell and our architects and really wanting to ensure that we’re not missing opportunities to maybe correct other things that represent significant issues?” Dr. Cascone asked at the time.

He added that there might not be any issues after completing the evaluation, but that district might also uncover things in its facilities that are only revealed “through actual in depth engineering and architectural studies.” Cascone also noted that he would like to avoid incidents like the one where a staircase collapsed at Montclair High School in September of 2018.

The next scheduled board meeting will be held on Aug. 26 at WOHS.