In light of the threat Eastern Regional High School faced last week, school district re-examines safety policies and procedures.
On Monday evening, local police, politicians, parents, educators and students convened in the Voorhees Middle School auditorium to discuss the township’s approach to school safety management.
The school safety forum, whose panel included state Sen. James Beach and Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, was initiated in light of the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., as well as the alleged terroristic threat made upon Eastern Regional High School a couple of weeks ago.
As a result of the district’s lack of transparency, as described by parents, regarding the Feb. 15 arrest of Jacob Finkelstein, the 18-year-old who allegedly threatened to “shoot up” the high school, the middle school auditorium was filled to capacity with community members demanding not only answers but solutions.
Along with Eastern Superintendent Harold Melleby and Principal Robert Tull, the panel included Mayor Michael Mignogna, Committeewoman Michelle Nocito and Police Chief Louis Bordi.
“We’ve received feedback about gaps in public information from the schools, how we provide security and the process of investigating complaints,” Bordi said. “It’s important that you know we’ve been providing superior school security for many, many years. This comes from a shared vision, commitment, a partnership and careful planning.”
He said, regarding the most recent incident, a delay in getting the police involved was identified. He said Nocito was the person who notified police about the threat on Feb. 15.
Melleby also commented on the administration’s conduct in the aftermath of the recent threat.
“The school administration had the opportunity to debrief and reflect its handling of this matter,” he said. “The conclusions reached were based on feedback from parents, students, school district employees, community members, board of education members and police officials.”
According to Melleby, after becoming aware of the threat, the administration conducted its own investigation, but going forward, the point of police involvement with these kinds of matters will be “immediate notification.”
Before taking questions from the audience, police officers and members of the Eastern and Voorhees Township public schools administrations discussed new ways of security, investigation and counseling that are being implemented in local schools.
First, the VTPD will now have remote, or live, access to Eastern’s internal security cameras.
Beginning Feb. 28, the administration will start conducting grade-level meetings to review safety procedures, including how to report suspicious activity.
“We take all incidents and threats very seriously,” Tull said.
According to Tull, Eastern recently also contacted the state Department of Education’s office of school preparedness and emergency planning to initiate a review of the district’s safety and communication protocols.
The VTPD began highented school security plans in 2012 after the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, according to Lt. Bill Walsh. Eventually, the program morphed into “round-the-clock” protection, entailing an armed VTPD officer at every school in the township, including Eastern. Walsh says Eastern has both school security officers and school resource officers.
“Those officers are the frontline of defense for our schools. They have a zero-minute response time,” Walsh said. “We expect all of our police officers to take action in the face of any kind of danger or adversity that comes into our school district.”
Walsh explained the department’s procedures in handling different kinds of investigations, stressing that in certain cases, information cannot legally be “pushed out in real time.”
Despite the outline of current and potential security measures, community members, including students, did not hesitate to voice their concerns.
Niemai Smith, 17, a senior at Eastern, questioned Tull on his assertiveness after learning about a threat, saying situations have not been handled “properly” or “effectively.”
“We’re always told that you’re not there, or you’re going to call us down, and we’re never called down. In that instance, what do we do from that point on?” she asked.
Tull said that, after learning of a threat, the administration conducts its own investigation. If a threat takes place in a certain grade level, the vice principal of that grade will often handle the situation.
“If, in fact, something doesn’t seem to be getting answered, then what happens is — we go back and see what things were missed, so we can take care of it,” he said.
Smith said her question did not feel answered.
Throughout the evening, dozens of parents expressed their worries about “holes” in Eastern’s security system, including open side doors, lack of officers before/after school, lack of officers on weekends, insufficient drills and the students’ little knowledge of procedures during a shooting.
Some parents cited times when the school officers were reading newspapers as strangers straggled in through the front doors.
Both parents and students say people can enter the school through multiple entrances, and students have noted times when teachers have left doors open during the day, as well.
“When I sit here on the panel and hear that gym teachers are leaving doors open,” Greenwald said, “if you leave a door open, you’re fired without pay.”
Throughout the evening, Greenwald advocated for Gov. Murphy’s ongoing gun control legislation, which emcompasses a series of regulations, such as ammunition limits and reversing Gov. Christie’s law that made it easier to carry concealed handguns in the state.
However, aside from the state, parents pushed for more action to be taken at the township and district level.
Donna DeCicco, a parent of a rising Eastern freshman, says one week after the Parkland shooting, she visited the high school and was brought into the building through a side door without being asked for her name or identification.
“My child needs to show his school ID to get a chocolate milk, but I can get into the door without anyone knowing who I am,” DeCicco said.
Parent Sharon Goodfellow questioned the frequency of school drills.
“My son, who’s a freshman, has absolutely no idea what to do. He doesn’t even want to come to school sometimes, and I don’t blame him,” Goodfellow said. “Is this a guarantee that my son is going to continue the next three years, and these drills are going to actually continue, not every five months?”
Some students illustrated their frustrations with the district’s drills, as one senior said she had a hard time differentiating a “lockout” drill from a “lockdown.” Another student asked if there was anyway to verify the truth of a fire alarm, as in several mass shooting cases, including Parkland, the shooter set off alarms as a way to lure students out of classrooms, according to reports.
“I express your concerns but, quite honestly, I don’t think there is a way right now,” Capt. Carmen Del Palazzo said. “That might play out. That might be the way of the future.”
Parents suggested innovative forms of security, including a hotline, a reliable phone line that won’t crash in the event of an emergency that goes to the district and that parents can use to determine the status of their children, in case of emergencies and installing metal detectors at the front entrance of the building.
Del Palazzo said metal detectors present pros and cons, and the decision to invest in them rests with the school boards. But, if the administration does go forward with metal detectors, the police department would support that choice.
As a whole, members of the panel agreed to consider the community’s input in moving forward.
Nocito thanked everyone for attending the forum, including the board members, police and parents.
“Mostly, I want to thank the Eastern students and VMS students that are here tonight,” she said. “The change that needs to go forward in our community and every community doesn’t happen without your voices. … What you’ve done in the last week for yourselves and for this community, you actually give me hope for the future.”