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School safety in Edison at forefront in wake of school shooting

Scott Jacobs
Residents of Edison Township enjoyed a beautiful day at Edison's Roosevelt Park on August 27, 2017

EDISON — The placement of armed security guards in the schools and other safety measures are on the table as the Edison Board of Education begins to assess security protocols following the recent school shooting in Florida.

On Feb. 14, a 19-year-old gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“Over the past week, parents, teachers and students have reached out to me and other board members to express their concerns, fears and anxieties relating to school safety issues,” Board President Jerry Shi said at a board meeting on Feb. 21. “Although there have been no credible threats received by the Edison School District, the tragic events in Parkland, Florida, serve to remind us that no community is immune to these type of violent acts. School safety is a number one concern.”

Many parents attended the board meeting held at John P. Stevens High School to express their concerns and suggested the district hire retired police officers or retired military personnel to provide enhanced security at the schools.

At the meeting, Shi announced the creation of a new school safety committee.

Board members Richard Brescher, Shannon Peng and Ralph Errico will sit on the committee along with Police Chief Thomas Bryan; Michael Schwarz, president of Police Benevolent Association Local 75; Jeff Bowden, president of the Edison Township Education Association; Township Council President Ajay Patil; and Mahesh Baghia, special assistant to Mayor Thomas Lankey.

“The committee will review current school security policies to ensure that we are best utilizing our resources,” Shi said. “The committee will also make recommendations as to immediate and systematic modifications as warranted.”

Shi said the board encourages the public to provide input to the committee either in open session at the board meetings or direct communication with committee members.

“All the members of this board, along with our teachers and administrators, take this issue very, very seriously,” he said. “No one should ever fear for the safety for their children. We will do everything in our power to make our schools the safest they can be.”

“Safety and security of our children is paramount,” said Bryan, who attended the board meeting with Deputy Chief Ron Mieczkowski. “I think everyone needs to know that [Superintendent Richard] O’Malley and [I] have had a very good working relationship for many years. We are in constant contact and we are always looking at the most efficient and effective way to keep our children safe.”

Bryan said when he took over as chief in 2008, his first order of business sent him flying over Edison in a Drug Enforcement Administration helicopter to take aerial photos and still photos.

“We came up with floor plans for all the schools and all other establishments that are pertinent to the community,” he said. “I certainly take [the safety of the school children] seriously.”

Bryan said the Edison Police Department developed certain safety protocols that were developed after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 in Colorado.

“I want everyone to understand and know we have six districts in Edison Township that are split up that our officers are deployed to around the clock,” he said. “I also want everyone to understand that my officers are very highly trained.”

Bryan said the members of the department’s SWAT team is deployed and spread out among the department’s shifts.

“At any given time you have officers that are highly trained and they have the best technology and they have the best weaponry,” he said.

Bryan said law enforcement officers will not to wait while a situation occurs, which was learned from the Columbine mass shooting.

“We are not going to wait for the SWAT team to assemble and get there,” he said. “What we are going to do is go right in right away.”

Bryan noted the department has school resource officers assigned to the high school and middle schools.

“They are in constant contact with Dr. O’Malley,” he said. “We are working cohesively with Dr. O’Malley with the board to come up with additional plans to moving forward.”

O’Malley said the district is required by law to have a crisis plan in place, which includes everything from fire drills, active shooter drills and lock down drills to food coming into the district. He said the drills are practiced and carried out on an ongoing basis.

He said one of the challenges the district faces is being a public school.

“We are supposed to be open to the public and our kids are supposed to feel safe and they are supposed to come to a safe place, which they are,” O’Malley said. “We let them out for recess, we have basketball games, and we have all these activities that are part of our rights, our freedom as Americans. These opportunities we have to refine and look at more.”

O’Malley said in the wake of the recent school shooting, he met with the principals at each school. He said the principals as well as teachers and staff take school safety seriously.

During the meeting, a parent asked the board about programs in place for identifying students or faculty with behavioral issues and providing a support system for them once identified.

Board member Beth Moroney said the Edison School District is the first district in New Jersey to have staff from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Rutgers Mental Health come to the district to help children and teachers who are feeling the stress of life.

“We had some of the children come forth on their own and some were referred by teachers, administrators and guidance counselors,” Moroney said. “Parents are of course contacted and then the children received some sort of treatment, sometimes in district and sometimes out of district placement. I will tell you that the report that I heard was that last year over 300 students in Edison were identified and treated as potentially suicidal or homicidal. All of those tragedies were prevented because we do have a pretty effective mental health program; however, it can always be better and we can always do more.”

Shi said the suggestions made at the meeting will be noted and discussed in the committee.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@newspapermediagroup.com.

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