NJ Schools Move to Reassure Families After Newtown Killings

John Mooney | December 17, 2012 | Education
Shootings at Columbine more than a decade ago opened educators' eyes to the need for stringent school safety

As the news from Newtown, CT, unfolded on Friday, New Jersey’s schools started sending emails of reassurance to families, letting them know that local schools remained safe places for their children.

In some communities, local police were dispatched to schools during their Friday dismissals, just for a show of presence. In a few, they are also expected to be there on Monday.

But over the weekend another response was less visible in many New Jersey schools, as superintendents and principals made quieter plans: meet with staff, go over safety procedures, and be especially alert to the emotions of students and staff in the days ahead.

“If any students are particularly concerned, or seem emotional about the news they have heard, please alert a counselor or administrator in your building,” wrote Perth Amboy superintendent Janine Caffrey to her staff last night.

“Our counselors and administrators have had training in responding to this sort of situation, and are ready to assist any student in need,” she added.

It’s a long way from the weeks and months that followed the events of 13 years ago, when New Jersey and the rest of the nation were jolted awake to the reality of school violence with the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

At that time, schools were far less prepared to deal with the causes and the impact of such acts. School safety was not foreign, by any means, but prevention was nowhere near as stringent – and mandated — as it is today.

Now, every New Jersey school is required by law to hold monthly security drills, and safety procedures are standard. Counselors are at the ready, and the state just this year added still more requirements: by October 15 every school must address cybercrimes and improve communications and surveillance .

That’s not to say every school follows these measures to the letter, but lockdown drills and camera monitors at school entrances are now commonplace. Not only do local police practice “active shooter” responses, but schools do as well.

“That was a new frontier back then,” said Adam Fried, superintendent of Harrington Park’s one-school district in Bergen County and a middle school vice principal at the time of Columbine shootings. “What do we do, who do we talk to? It was rough.”

“That changed it for a lot of us,” he said. “Security measures, making sure we are supporting the kids, we all do that.”

Harrington Park even now has “crash kits” of water and food in every classroom in case of an extended lockdown, Fried said. Still, Friday’s shooting was a jolt in its own right.

“This time, we woke up to a new reality,” he said. “An elementary school had been attacked . . . These were six year old kids.”

The victims’ ages may be the most disturbing thing of all for New Jersey educators contacted this weekend, as was the reported circumstances of the Newtown shooting, where 20-year-old Adam Lanza apparently shot his way into the building.

One Monmouth County superintendent said in an email this weekend: “We may not have an answer for one disturbed individual armed to the teeth who is willing to take his own life . . . Sobering.”

Some local school officials did think a show of police presence would help in the days ahead. At Red Bank Borough’s middle school, police were on hand at dismissal and were expected to be there again this week.

Laura Morana, the Red Bank superintendent, said the police have always been a ready and welcome presence at the school, doing walkthroughs and talking with students.

“I felt that it was appropriate to have police presence to reflect our response to the tragedy that took place on Friday, and that local government and the schools are partners in ensuring the safety of our students and staff,” she said.

Others administrators repeatedly used the words “normalcy” and “routine” in describing how they want their schools to react, especially with the youngest children who won’t be able to fully comprehend Friday’s events. On top of dealing with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy that continues to rock many communities, that is not an easy task.

Still, a frequent point raised by school leaders was the suggestion of caution in talking about the events with the youngest children, several citing guidance from the National Association of School Psychologists to what is age-appropriate.

“Early elementary schoolchildren need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them,” read the guidelines shared by Morana and others.

In all, it proved a busy weekend for school leaders throughout the state, each preparing for an unpredictable week.

“In many ways, the world before us has changed,” Freehold superintendent Charles Sampson wrote his staff last night. “Sadly, we have seen this before.

“We move forward much more cognizant of the fact that we are the first line of defense to ensuring safe schools,” he continued. “We reiterate the importance of reporting unusual activity immediately. We must close all exterior doors behind us and be vigilant in signing in and out. We must practice our security drills with the utmost purpose. And, most importantly, we must lay this foundation of expectations with our students.”