District officials share new safety, mental health protocol

With the new school year underway, the Hopewell Valley Regional School District has implemented a new school safety protocol and mental health curriculum for its students, Pre-K through grade 12.

During an information session on Tuesday, Oct. 9, Superintendent of Schools Thomas A. Smith, Assistant Superintendent Anthony Suozzo and Director of Curriculum and Instruction Rosetta Treece shared the district’s progress and upcoming improvements.

Suozzo, who was recently appointed the district’s School and Safety Specialist, said he participated in a week-long training program over the summer detailing how to respond during active shooter drills, as well as analyzing case studies of some of the most well-known shootings in the United States.

“With all of that, [we] took a look at, what are some best practices we could put in place in the district as far as training of staff and our students, as well as our facilities,” Suozzo said.

Some of these practices, he said, include the implementation of new lanyards and ID holders for staff across the district, as well as for students at Timberlane Middle School and Central High School (CHS). Visitors will now also wear lanyards, as opposed to the yellow visitor sticker used in the past.

“[A visitor sticker] could get hidden, that could fall off,” Suozzo said. “[The lanyards] make it very easy for our staff, for our campus safety officers to identify if someone doesn’t have something on that identifies them, then they either haven’t signed in where they need to, or they shouldn’t be in the building.”

Suozzo added that each school building in the district has been geo-mapped, providing law enforcement with a digital map using colors, letters or numbers assigned to specific locations.

“By using that terminology, all law enforcement in the county have access to these maps that they can pull up quickly on their laptops,” Suozzo said. “Even though they may not know where the high school cafeteria is because they’ve never been in our building, by using a gridding system, they can easily locate it and assist our local police.”

Other safety improvements made to the district schools include limited entry points and redesigned and secured vestibules. Currently at CHS, students and staff enter through two doors, while visitors enter through one door. Suozzo said that, once the building construction is completed, there will only be one entrance for staff, students and visitors. The secured vestibules for the district schools will require any visitor to be buzzed in through two doors before allowed access to the building. They are scheduled to be completed by the end of the academic year, Smith said.

Smith added that, while each school building also has campus safety officers, who are retired law enforcement personnel, they are currently unarmed.

“What the board [of education] empowered us to do, and expected us to do, was put a lot of things into place before we started that discussion,” he said. “We felt that we could tighten up on a lot of things, so that will be the next generation of discussion. It’s a tough conversation and one that we think will have to be something reflective of the community, and the board will make that decision when it’s time.”

A non-tangible security and safety measurement the district has taken, officials said, was increased communication with parents and between staff if an emergency were to occur.

With new technology available to the district, administrative teams will receive a text message informing them of an emergency, where it is and — if a call to 911 was made — which classroom the call came from.

Parents and law enforcement will also receive notice of the emergency, Suozzo said.

Communication with students is also being implemented through an anonymous tip line, Hope and Help, which was launched in the spring. Monitored 24/7 by district officials, the tip line allows students, staff and parents to share concerns that may impact the safety of other students. It can also be used to raise awareness to a suspicious post a student has made on social media or if a student is concerned about a classmate’s behavior or mental health.

This tip line is also a portion of the district’s social and emotional learning curriculum, which aims to promote mindfulness and positive mental health among Pre-K to grade 12 students.

Treece said, “The district has been taking steps and now, we’re very entrenched in imbedding social and emotional learning in everyday activities that students are participating in.”

Some of the pre-existing social and emotional learning practices include short movement breaks throughout the day for Pre-K through grade 5 students, a “mindfulness minute” for grade 6 through grade 8 students and yoga for grade 9 through grade 12 students.

“There are going to be times where you have children who do have mental health issues that are hurt beyond the scope of what the school can fix with lessons,” Treece said.

Because of this, the district has an agreement with Comprehensive Mental Health Services, which provides counseling for students and support for parents.

“Sending a child in crisis to the hospital, to an emergency room, may not be the first step you want to take,” Treece said. “Maybe we can get them to a mental health care provider first who can really asses it, if that’s where we need to go.”

The district is also in the process of revising its suicide protocol and preventions methods, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has supplied a model curriculum that outlines how to respond and react if a student takes their own life, as well as preventative action plans.

As far as what current students can do to help promote safety within the schools and raise awareness about other students who may be struggling, Smith offered simple advice: “If you see something, say something.”

“If they are worried about a fellow student, whether it’s mental health or security related, tell somebody,” he said. “That is the easiest, simplest thing to do. If you are worried about somebody or if something makes you uncomfortable, let us know immediately. One thing we know is that most kids share something before something happens, so it’s just about picking it up and not ignoring it and telling somebody.”