WEST ORANGE, NJ — The community came together on Feb. 28 in the West Orange High School Auditorium to discuss safety and security in the town’s schools with Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky and a panel of West Orange police officers. The open forum saw residents, parents and district employees share their thoughts and ideas about how to address gun violence and prepare for it in the wake of the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14.
The forum opened with Lt. John Morella, supervisor of student resource officers and school liaison in the WOPD, sharing the police department’s protocol for safety drills and communication in the schools.
“Something you have to understand is, it’s going to be a bad day no matter what,” Morella said about the event of a school shooting. “We want to facilitate and slow the process down. We can respond in three minutes to any school, and if something is slowed down by even 30 seconds it will help us get there.”
Morella talked about drills in which the police department participates, called “table-top exercises,” where police officers and school employees are walked through possible scenarios and discuss how they would be handled. He also told parents to begin talking to their children at a young age about how to get out of a bad situation.
“Have them start to look around them and, as they get older, get them thinking about recognizing ways they could get out of a place if there is a bad situation,” Morella said.
Communication was a topic that received a lot of focus at the forum, with Morella mentioning an app that school employees can use to be alerted of a possible intruder, and a system that allows the police department to obtain blueprints of the school hallways. With the system, officers would be able to locate where people are located, even if officers are not at the scene.
“The first thing you want to do is protect your kid and go where they are,” Morella said about reuniting parents and children at a designated place in the event that a shooting happens. “We can’t do that (right away) because it’s an active crime scene.”
He also said the police department practices active shooter drills on a regular basis so that officers can get used to what could happen and be able to handle such a situation efficiently.
Rutzky pointed out that when the police arrive on the scene they in charge, not the school’s staff.
“At that point, we are no longer in charge,” he said at the meeting. “The police are in charge, and we do everything we can to help them.”
Many attendees shared their ideas and opinions as to what the district and police department should do in the event of a shooting, but the biggest concerns brought up were: metal detectors at school entrances, how to talk to students about the possibility of a school shooting, and not using schools as voting stations on election and primary days.
Some people were in favor of having metal detectors in schools to maximize the safety measures taken, but many were opposed, citing their psychological effects on students.
Addressing voting in schools, Rutzky said that while some voting sites have been moved out of schools in West Orange, there is still more research to be done on the subject. Canceling school on Election Day is a possibility that is being looked into, he said.
Not all the questions could be answered at the forum, so Rutzky said the district will be compiling his own and the police notes, and combining them into a presentation that will be available to parents and residents.
“We can always learn and find new ways to do things,” Rutzky said. “And we should involve the students. They know more of what’s going on in the building and outside the building than we do as adults. Us helping you help your children is what we are ready to do, and it’s important to realize that this is not just something we’ve recently started talking about because of what happened in Florida.”
“There is no perfect plan,” Morella said. “All you can do is try to improve the current plan, and that’s something we’re doing constantly.”