The Dec. 14 murders of over two dozen children and educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., at the hands of a deranged gunman were, not surprisingly, on the minds of those who attended last week’s Lawrence Township Board of Education meeting.
As concerned parents made suggestions and asked questions, board members and administrators offered reassurances that the safety of students and staff remains the school district’s top priority and that steps are being taken to improve security.
One parent suggested that bullet-proof doors be installed at township schools, while another parent asked about having police officers in every school. Superintendent Crystal Edwards reported that district officials met earlier in the week with township police to discuss school security and that additional meetings were anticipated.
“It’s been a hard week for everybody, for anybody who has kids in school…for anybody, period. Maybe some of you are here to talk about that. If you are, then we want to be as clear as we can about our commitment to keeping everyone safe,” school board president Laura Waters said at the start of Wednesday’s (Dec. 19) meeting.
“We’ve tried to really make an effort to keep everyone in the loop. Dr. Edwards sent out…you should have all gotten some letters Dr. Edwards sent out regarding our commitment to safety,” Waters continued, referring to correspondence released by the superintendent on Dec. 14 and Dec. 17. “Kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe. Parents can’t feel comfortable unless they know that we do everything we possibly can to keep children and teachers safe.”
“No different than any other parent would feel, it’s been a very, very emotionally-challenging week, especially as you look at your kids and see them every morning. It’s just been a very difficult week. And I’m sure it has been for so many people,” Fountayne Lane resident Vijay Luthra said to the board. “I’ve read a lot of the communications that have been sent out by Dr. Edwards and I appreciate her updates. I’d just, respectfully, like to challenge that.
“I don’t know if that’s enough that we have locked doors and some of the security measures in place. From everything I’ve read, it seems like the school in Connecticut had similar measures. It wasn’t a deterrent,” Luthra continued. “In my opinion, we need to create some deterrent in the schools where a person would think twice before taking this move. We’ve never heard stuff like this happening in airports, to any VIP that’s being protected by more security, in train stations, because there is security there, there’s some sort of deterrent and people think twice before trying something like this. It’s our kids. They’re helpless. The staff is…they’re not security professionals. So, it is my firm belief and opinion that until something is done about it at a larger scale, I think the only mechanism is to create some sort of defense.”
“What kind of deterrent do you have in mind?” Waters asked.
“Armed security guards, some bullet-proof doors,” Luthra answered, saying that according to some news accounts he has read the doors at the school in Connecticut posed little obstacle to the gunman. “I think that we need to do more, and if that means creating a special security fund that gets funded by parents…I would be willing to entertain…but I think what we have in place is not sufficient.”
“Again, this has all just happened. And we will be reporting back at the next board meeting. I think we can say that. I’m not promising any action by that point but certainly we will have moved forward in being able to analyze whatever deficits we think we have and describe more fully some kind of strategy,” Waters said.
She noted that Lawrence Township schools, like all other schools in the state, are required to hold regular “active shooter” response training drills. “There is preparation done. We have really extensive security measures in place, so I don’t want you to think we lock the door and say, ‘OK, everybody’s fine.’ It goes well beyond that.”
“And we did meet with the police department earlier this week to share some of the concerns, as yours, with them,” Edwards told Luthra. “So they’re working real closely with us to examine the situation. So there’s a lot of collaboration between the township and our schools.”
Kapil Sharma, also of Fountayne Lane, expressed similar concerns about school safety.
“The fact of the matter is this incident happened, and happened in a very affluent and very able neighborhood in Connecticut. I think we need to talk about some tangible actions that we need to take…. We need to know if this is priority No. 1 of the school district or not at this time – security?” he said
“Security is always our No. 1 concern,” Waters answered. “As I said, we can’t have education without the children being safe and the teachers being safe. So, yes, certainly security is [No. 1].”
“I guess the question I have to ask is if, God forbid, exactly the same type situation arises, what are the tactical step-by-step procedures that we have in place? How long will it take for our law enforcement to respond? What are the actions that the school district’s going to take?” Sharma continued. “I would be OK if this was any other issue, but I need to be very particular about this because I need to understand if we have the exact, very precise tactical steps in place.”
“Some of that we can’t tell you because it’s security,” Waters said prior to referring the question to Edwards.
“We do have very detailed, specific plans in place, which we actually practice,” Edwards responded. “As Laura said, some of the details of that we prefer not to share. Obviously, that would compromise the security of our students. But in terms of our police response, it’s excellent. We do have the active shooter drills that we do with the police. In fact, when we met with the police earlier this week one of the things that we collaboratively worked on is having them make sure that they train all of their officers in our buildings. They need to know what a stairwell looks like, they need to know the security of all of our buildings, and things like that. So there is tremendous collaboration between us and law enforcement in terms of what we do. With our staff, all of our staff are trained, and we have people who work in multiple buildings who need to understand the procedures in that building versus another building.”
“Are you saying, on the record, that our [police] forces over here can respond within one or two minutes?” Sharma asked.
“I’m not saying that our forces can respond to someone with a high-powered assault weapon that can shoot through not only bullet-proof glass, but in some cases, some of these weapons can shoot through metal. That is not what I am saying that we have in place right now,” Edwards said. “If that’s the answer you are seeking, I can’t say that.”
Sharma continued, “Pardon my ignorance – maybe it’s a totally bad idea – is it completely unthinkable…for us to expect one or two police officers dedicated in every school?”
“It’s not completely unthinkable,” the superintendent answered. “We used to have SROs [School Resource Officers] in our schools; we used to have police officers in our schools. And our township had to pull the police officers back. So in terms of it being unthinkable, no, it’s not unthinkable. It’s clearly considerable. And as we talked earlier, we were in consultation with our police department to talk about the things we could do. This just happened Friday so we are looking at the things we can do and where we can pull in those resources to do this.”
Lawrence Township police previously had a school resource officer assigned to Lawrence High School on a fulltime basis but, due to budgetary constraints, that assignment was eliminated at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, according to the department’s 2010 annual report. And earlier this year, as a result of a departmental reorganization prompted by reduced staffing and layoffs amid the township’s ongoing budget crisis, it was announced that police officers would no longer be able to teach the DARE drug abuse prevention program and that the township’s two juvenile bureau detectives would no longer be able to make regular visits to the elementary schools and intermediate school to interact with students.
“When I heard the news on Friday, like a lot of parents, my first thought was to come to school and grab my kids and bring them home,” said Pepper Evans, a Slack Avenue resident who is immediate past president of the Lawrence Township Education Foundation. “Statistics show that my children are safer in school than they are at home. But that wasn’t the only comfort I had. I have many times been in the schools with the different hats I’ve worn and have been part of a fire drill, one time a lockdown, and to a time I have always been impressed at how smoothly things go. I’ve been in kindergarten classrooms when there’s been a fire drill, I’ve been in special needs classrooms where the students are not nearly as mobile as some other classrooms. It runs like clockwork.
“If there are parents who need to be reassured about the safety in our schools, the drills are constantly reinforcing. I’ve never seen them fail. It’s just such a comfort as a parent to have seen it with my own eyes. In every classroom, on every occasion I’ve been in, Lawrence Township Public Schools, from kindergarten on up through the high school, it has really been a solace to me to know that my children are in a very safe place, and they’re prepared,” Evans said.
Later in the meeting, Edwards offered “my condolences to all the families and people affected by this horrific event that happened Friday. Just speaking as a parent, as an educator, it’s going to leave a scar that I don’t think will ever go away. It’s something that’s tremendously unfortunate.
“I also want to offer a huge thank you and tons of appreciation for my entire staff who, given this week, and Friday when things were unfolding, they really were there for the kids and they kept it together and they did what was necessary to keep our kids safe,” she continued. “They reassured the kids. They tried to keep school this week as normal as possible, greeting the kids with as much love, safety and security as they needed to get though this week. You really can’t train for that in a university; that’s just good people doing what’s great for kids. So I do want to say thank you to everybody in the district who gave their all for our children this week.
“Also, to all of the families, community members, parents who emailed me, emailed my staff, we did get a lot of support for you at a time that, I think, my staff did need it. In addition to the kids, there were a lot of adults who were killed, who gave their lives protecting the children, and that hits home with my staff. So the fact that the families here sent very nice, very kind emails to my principals, my teachers, my counselors, my central office people – again, I do appreciate all of that,” she said.
“We are doing the best that we can, trying to make sure that our security procedures are airtight. Some of you may have already received communications from your building principals regarding what may feel like an inconvenience to you now, where you may have to walk around to the front of the building, you actually have to stand there now and state your business in terms of what you’re doing in coming into the building. So for some where it was a convenience because you were familiar to us, and we see you at the back door and it’s easier to let you in through the back door, we’re now tightening that up. And building principals have been communicating that with families, so let me apologize right now for that inconvenience that you may feel but it really is to make sure that our kids are as safe as possible,” the superintendent concluded.
District Business Administrator Tom Eldridge, meanwhile, offered his own reassurances that safety was the district's priority.
“I’m going to direct my comments to the folks who asked the questions about security and assure you of one thing – that there’s nothing you’ve suggested that we hadn’t already thought of,” he said. “And beyond that, as you hear things such as [the district’s fiber optic network] and you hear of cost-savings, one of the things that the board has done is it has strategically place itself in a position where it could respond to the concerns that were brought up by any number of people, not just the gentlemen here today, but by people who have contacted specifically Dr. Edwards over email and face-to-face conversations that allow us to move in a direction that we need to move.
“And what I mean by that is when you walk up to our buildings we have you on camera; we know who you are when we need to find out who you are. We have the fiber optics project that was just mentioned – yes it serves the purpose of providing a conduit so that our kids can experience the world through the internet and technology; it is also one of the backbones that we have to observe, monitor, stream the video back to us and that’s about as much as I can say about that. Do the police have access to that? Absolutely. We are not the only ones. That is no secret. It’s a standard practice, “ Eldridge continued. “And as I sit here I have reports coming up on my screen. The emails are coming up right now as our people are telling me that they’ve been to these buildings and looked at the lighting scenarios and seen that they were locked down and so one. Those are coming up on my screen right now. Have we responded? Of course we’ve responded….
“We do as much as we can. Our imaginations are not limited by what we already know and what other people do. The most important thing to give you an idea of what we need to do, in terms of on the facilities end, is for you, as the citizens, to make us aware of the things that you see. Our game has been amped up. There’s no question about that,” he said. “But if you see some area of vulnerability you need to bring that to us, mention it to us, and if you see that a door was unlocked or somebody was tailgating someone in after school or before school, or you walked up to the building to go have lunch with your child and somebody opened the door for you without asking, or even if a child were to open up a door for you, then it’s a good idea to go back to the school and say, ‘I’m concerned because that child opened the door for me and I just want you to know that. I know you’ve asked them not to, but if you’d remind them, please.’
“That’s the most important thing you can do, aside from everything you’ve already said. And have we thought in ways that we don’t think to think of? Absolutely. And that’s as much as we can say for security purposes. But chances are, if you’ve thought of it, with over approximately 500 employees over the course of work, spread out around the town, fielding all the information and comments you’ve brought to them, chances are we’ve heard most of that, but bring it anyway.”
Full audio from the school board meeting can be found on the district’s website.