Editor's Notebook: Jan. 22 Board of Education Meeting
By Rebecca K. Abma
The Midland Park Police Department gave a presentation on school security measures and the district introduced policy changes for total number of credits and student use of electronic devices and cellphones at the Jan. 22 Board of Education meeting.
Lieutenant Bernie Vandenberg and Sgt. Greg Kasbarian detailed lessons learned from the lockdown at the Junior-Senior High School in September and addressed parent concerns about school security in the aftermath of the December school shooting in Newtown, CT.
"The lockdown was the perfect storm. It happened as the schools were letting out, which was the worst time for it to happen," Lieutenant Vandenberg explained of the uneventful lockdown on Sept. 28 that enlisted the aid of five nearby police departments. "We learned a lot from that day and made changes to procedures as a result."
Lockdowns can happen for different reasons — an active shooter, a suspicious person or even an accident with a fuel spill near the schools. Once a lockdown is activated, parents will be notified as soon as possible, but first, police need to secure and assess the scene. In the future, any time one school is put on lockdown, all schools in Midland Park will also be put on lockdown initially, including all district schools, Eastern Christian and the Children's Therapy Center Upper School at Nativity Church, so that no children are out of school and unaccounted for.
Police explained their main priorities in the event of a threat is to ensure their safety, to protect our children and to eliminate the threat. Only after the situation is assessed can police notify parents through Swift 911 or Emergency eNotifications. Police are also discussing using Facebook or other Social Media channels to ensure accurate information in sent out in a timely manner, however, for tactical or practical reasons it may take 20 minutes or more for parents to get official information. Once police are called onto the scene, school officials yield to police for public notifications.
Are you signed up for Swift 911 Emergency Notifications? Here are step by step instructions to ensure you receive emergency alerts.
"It is important that you trust that we know what to do," Vandenberg explained. "We want to make sure the information you receive is accurate, and information sent out early tends to be incorrect and creates more chaos.
"We can’t have a building that is unsafe suddenly have an influx of people. Roads will get jammed and we can’t get support personnel in that way," he continued. "When we are tying to identify a threat, we don’t want innocent people running around the building. We don’t know if it is a parent who went crazy. Show up at the school and you will be seen initially as a threat. There will be a place for you to get reliable info."
Officials said the last thing a parent should do during a lockdown is show up at the schools. The schools and police are working together to identify an official meeting location where parents can get information, however, the official location has not been identified yet. Schools are currently holding random evacuation drills and police hold random security checks at all schools in MIdland Park to ensure all buildings are locked and secure.
Possible Policy Changes
The school board introduced three potential policy changes that will be voted on by board members at an upcoming meeting. The most controversial revision was to graduation requirements to policy section 5460. The proposal would nullify a policy approved in 2010 to increase the minimum credits required for graduation from 126 to 131. The plan to increase minimum credit is scheduled to take effect until next, but the proposed policy change would negate it and leave minimum requirements as is.
According to district officials, state requirements are lower than 126 credits, and most Midland Park Junior-Senior High graduates have between 136 and 143 credits. At the time the stricter requirements were implemented, district officials did not look at the full spectrum of students who would be impacted by the new requirements, specifically Special Ed students and those with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Dr. Marie Cirasella noted the bottom third of students may be impacted by a higher requirement and to ensure equal opportunity for all students to graduate along with maintaining parity with nearby districts, Midland Park should maintain the 126 credits requirement.
A detailed presentation will be given at the next meeting. Trustees James Canellas and Brian McCourt cast opposing votes to the introduction.
A second proposal to revise policy section 5516 was approved on introduction and will go to a formal vote at a future meeting. The policy regarding the use of electronic communication and recording devices alters the cell phone policy to allow students to carry cell phones on their person, provided they are off or on vibrate and not used in classrooms, locker rooms or bathrooms. Students may use their cellphones during lunch, study hall and before or after school, and for pre-approved purposes, such as taking pictures of homework assignments. However, students may not take pictures without prior approval, or during state testing.
Currently students are not allowed to have their cellphones on their person during the day and must keep it in their lockers, which officials noted is not an enforceable policy. Under the proposed policy, if a student takes the phone out of their pockets during class time, the phone will be confiscated.
The third proposal discussed school clearance in a crisis situation. The proposed policy lays out official procedures the school is going to take.