WEST ORANGE, NJ — Superintendent of Schools Scott Cascone discussed school security at the West Orange Board of Education meeting on Dec. 6, following the Nov. 30 fatal school shooting in Oxford, Mich., in which four students were killed.
“Every time a community in our country experiences the tragedy of a school shooting, it has a way of thrusting that back into people’s consciousness,” Cascone said at the meeting. “Fortunately, it’s not something that’s in our consciousness all the time, but as school district officials, it’s never off of our mind.”
Drills happen on a regular basis once a month, as per state law. The district’s crisis management and school security manual is updated every year, according to Cascone. The district also works with a security consulting firm, StoneGate Associates.
“They partner with us not only in the ongoing update of our school security manual, but also our trainings of our administrative team and staff, which occurs annually,” Cascone said. “In addition to that, the district has continued to be really proactive in its security infrastructure.”
Through grant funding, every school has a mantrap, which is an access-control vestibule at the entrance to the school from which visitors must be buzzed into the building. Visitor management systems are also currently being installed in all of the district’s schools. Panic buttons have been installed in all of the schools as well.
“From the infrastructure side, from the training side, I can assure you that we are exemplary as far as our security infrastructure and our training and protocols,” Cascone said. “But we know that that’s only part of it. The other half of school security is creating school environments that are as welcoming and as inclusive and safe as possible.”
A new initiative in the district is the Handle With Care program, a partnership with local law enforcement agencies in which an agency will alert the school district if a student has experienced a traumatic event at home or outside the school.
“They don’t tell us what, they just let us know if the child witnessed a traumatic event at home,” Cascone said. “That could be a domestic violence situation, a drug overdose or something of that nature. What that does is that, with a student who would have been anonymously traumatized, we might want to pay extra attention to and give some extra support.”
The district also uses Gaggle, software that monitors what is searched on the school computers. If a student posts something about harming themselves or someone else, administrators are notified about it.
“With the role of the community and the role of families and parents, it’s being engaged and vigilant relative to your children’s social media usage,” Cascone said. “Understand what they’re writing and what they’re posting. The influences to which they have access is a really important piece as well.”
BOE member Cheryl Merklinger asked how staff is prepared to identify whether a student is in distress; Cascone said all employees receive annual training on how to spot mental health issues, such as suicidal ideation.
“While that’s only tangent to the profile of a perpetrator of school violence, there are within that presentation a number of informational points about warning signs of a troubled individual,” Cascone said. “What I see in all of our schools is an open-door policy, where staff members have a close relationship with administrators and guidance counselors. So I’m pretty confident that, if staff members received that information, they would feel comfortable bringing it forward, and that we would be as discreet about it as possible.”