SOMSD holds virtual safety and security forum

MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — On Monday evening, Aug. 29, the South Orange–Maplewood School District held a virtual safety and security forum. Though there were some technical issues with the video, the event provided a lot of reassuring information regarding the safety of district students and staff.

The event’s panelists were Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor, School & Community Safety Director Stanley Valles, Access & Equity Assistant Superintendent Kevin Gilbert, Columbia High School Principal Frank Sanchez, Maplewood police Chief Jim DeVaul and South Orange police Chief Ernesto Morillo.

“We are gathered today with the goal to create an opportunity here for our SOMSD school community to hear from folks in the district and folks who represent your townships’ safety and security,” Taylor said to open the forum. 

DeVaul expressed his gratitude for the collaboration between the MPD and the school district and welcomed the district’s new director of school and community safety.

“This is a very important update for the community and the school community. I welcome everybody back to school. I know that we’ve had a wonderful summer and the summer is over very quickly,” DeVaul said. “I look forward to working with the district in a collaborative manner. I look forward to working with the new security specialist, Stan, and I just want to thank everybody for being a part of this.”

Morillo expressed similar sentiments, praising the district’s openness to collaboration.

“Welcome to the new safety and security director, Stan Valles, who is being entrusted with the safety of our kids. And I have a lot of confidence in him,” Morillo said. “I’ve had a few opportunities to sit down with him and speak with him one-on-one, and I’m just looking forward to any type of dialogue we can have to improve the overall environment for our students and our community.”

Taylor and the other panelists stressed that the leaders in the districts and two towns are in near-constant contact with one another. 

“For those who might not be aware, we talk all the time. We have a very strong relationship with our police partners,” Taylor said.

Sanchez also highlighted the cooperation between the towns and district, as he discussed certain security upgrades at the high school. While the district cannot detail every security measure in place, for safety reasons, Sanchez did explain that all CHS students will now have to carry an ID card, which they will use to swipe into the building. 

“We really thank our board, superintendent and central office for making these budgetary investments at the high school,” Sanchez said. “Of course, really it’s about relationships, and so as much as we value our relationships with our students, we of course value our relationships with our community partners, including our Maplewood and South Orange police departments. At the end of the day, we’re not here to jam any student up but more importantly to work together to make sure students make the right decisions and good choices. So we really are fortunate to have police departments that share that philosophy, and we have great relationships with both police departments.”

Valles, who himself is a CHS graduate, having attended the high school with DeVaul, previously worked for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, Livingston Police Department and NJ Transit Police Department, and was most recently head of security at St. Michael’s College in Vermont. Valles is also a former schoolteacher, according to Taylor.

“I’m happy to be home and to be in a school district where I spent my formative years,” Valles said before explaining that, when it comes to school safety and security, compliance with state and federal laws is critical. 

For instance, Valle said that, in accordance with guidelines and mandates, the district needs to provide written notification to parents/guardians when a drill is conducted, must ensure that the end of the drill is clearly announced to all participants, and has to track data regarding security and safety.

“School districts must ensure that school security drills include clear, developmentally and age-appropriate messaging to students and staff,” Valle said. “It’s important that we give them the guidance they need and that we support all of our students.”

Prior to the forum, the district gathered questions from community members. In all, 50 questions were submitted. Not all of the questions were answered at the forum, as the district felt they were less about safety and more about other district matters.

For instance, there were questions about CHS school safety related to entry/exit doors and unauthorized guests.

“We have 64 doors at Columbia High School; Columbia High School is a huge building,” Sanchez said, explaining that this year students will enter the building at four main points: the entrance for seniors, through the cafeteria for freshmen, through the gym for sophomores and juniors, and at the Academy Street door for students who take the bus or walk that way.

The new IDs that students will have should keep track of who is entering the building and where, while keeping things moving quickly to prevent bottlenecking, according to Sanchez. The school will also hold assemblies with students to ensure they know the rules and procedures regarding entering and exiting the building.

“We believe in restorative justice here at Columbia and across the district, so we will have the consequences spelled out for our students” who don’t follow the rules, Sanchez said, explaining that there have been issues in the past with current students letting in former students or students from other schools, both of which happened last year. “In those cases we knew when it happened in real time because, a) our students told us, so we were able to rectify the situation, and b) our security guards who know our students so well were able to let us know. We already have that strong foundation of knowing who is supposed to be in our school building,” he continued, adding that trespass charges were filed in those instances.

“Allowing someone who does not attend Columbia High School or any of our schools to enter that school is about the most dangerous thing a person can do in our school district, and we take it extremely seriously,” Taylor said. “I participate in those conversations with those students who make that grave error and help them to understand along with the CHS team just how important and devastating that decision is.”

Other community members asked how the district plans to ensure student safety at sporting events at Underhill Field, where in June 2021, 18-year-old CHS student Moussa Fofana was shot to death.

While he did not want to get into specifics, Taylor did assure the community that the district has increased the number of cameras and the camera range at Underhill, has had other technological upgrades, and has added fencing. 

Student mental health was also discussed, with residents asking if the district plans to implement a threat identification and assessment program, which would work to identify students in crisis before a tragedy occurs. 

“On Aug. 4, 2022, our governor signed (a law) that essentially stated that all schools in New Jersey will have a threat assessment team,” Valles said. “We essentially have a lot of that in place. The law doesn’t take effect until next year, but we have a good skeleton in place.”

Sanchez also explained that tracking behavior in general can help promote a better and safer school culture for students and staff. 

“So last year we understood that this was a national epidemic, where we did have more bullying instances across the country and student altercations across the country,” Sanchez said, explaining that CHS began tracking trends in this area. “We looked at the grade level of the students. Nearly 80 percent of altercations involved the freshmen. When was a fight or altercation? Fifty percent of them occurred at lunch or Period 9, sometimes a conference period. Where? Many happened during lunch and off grounds,” Sanchez continued, adding that, due to this data, freshmen will no longer have open-campus privileges this year.

“And who? Who was involved? That was important for us, to see if there were any students who were repeatedly in altercations, or who may not have been fighting but may have been involved in the tangential way,” Sanchez said, explaining that a high number of students with IEPs were involved in altercations, leading the school to add more behavioral programs for these students. “We’re going to continue to look at data as fights occur and also make the changes.”

Another question asked was whether the district and towns are prepared to handle issues such as school shootings, which have become commonplace in the United States in the past couple of decades.

“I’ve never seen such collaboration, and the addition of Mr. Valles has been wonderful, exactly what we were looking for. The collaboration is going to pay off more than anybody can know. This summer we did building familiarization in our town; I can’t tell you how critical that is, for our officers to know our buildings,” DeVaul said, expressing confidence that the Maplewood and South Orange police departments are prepared in the event of an emergency. “We have to empower our staff and our students to be a part of the process. It’s very important. The drills can’t be viewed as a negative experience; it has to be a positive experience. We have been working with the district. They have their mandates, and the mandates are what they are. We have been working collaboratively to figure out ways to reduce stress, to improve efficiency and to reduce the time.”

DeVaul added that it is important for district staff to be familiar with the drill process, because “they are going to be the critical part.”

“Staff is a critical component in this. Whenever there is a drill, the students, whoever is in their classroom, are looking to them,” DeVaul said, adding that the department is currently talking with Taylor about doing training with district staff. 

To view the recorded parts of the forum, visit tinyurl.com/ed7snezy.

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