Threat teams to assess students

Police and firefighters regularly walk through schools, including Columbia High School, to make sure they are familiar with them.

New Behavioral Threat Assessment Teams that will investigate students if there is a concern they might pose a risk to others was one of the topics covered during a South Orange Maplewood School District online forum on school safety and security.

The forum was on Thursday, Sept. 21, and included Ronald Taylor, superintendent of the South Orange and Maplewood School District; Stanley Valles, director of district school safety and security; Maplewood Police Chief Albert Salley; South Orange Police Chief Ernest Morillo; and South Essex Fire Department Chief Joseph Alvarez.

Questions from families to the panelists were accepted in advance.

The forum opened with Taylor discussing Behavioral Threat Assessment Management teams, which Valles said will “help students make good choices and support students.”

The BTAM teams are composed of trained school and district personnel with diverse positions, backgrounds and experience. The team will receive reports about a student who has raised concerns, gather additional information, assess the risk posed to the community and advise parents or guardians.

The team will also develop intervention and management strategies to support the students and mitigate any risk of harm to anyone.

“An active shooter is typically someone not happy,” Valles said. “Gun violence is preventable, when you know the signs. Our district has been identifying students of concern and looking to help.”

Currently, the South Orange Maplewood School District has 10 Behavioral Threat and Assessment Management teams. Each team member must have basic BTAM training. In addition to Valles, Columbia High School Principal Frank Sanchez and SOMSD Director of Access and Equity Kerri Waibel have received advanced BTAM training.

All schools in New Jersey must have BTAM teams and also be compliant with Alyssa’s Law.

In 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy signed “Alyssa’s Law,” which requires all New Jersey public schools install silent panic alarms that will alert law enforcement during emergencies, such as an active shooter, or to employ an alternative emergency mechanism approved by the Department of Education. Every SOMSD school is compliant with Alyssa’s Law. The system is tested periodically, not only during drills.

“Our IT team is working on a remote lockdown device that will give availability to lockdown remotely from everywhere in the state,” Valles said. “I feel we have made great strides since I’ve been here.”

First responders are required to spend time in the building, getting to know their way around.

“Walk-throughs are very important,” Morillo said. “Year in and year out, law enforcement studies incidents, so they don’t repeat them. Learn a little bit about each occurrence. Some parents are uncomfortable with walkthroughs. Our focus is neutralizing any threat in or around school. We want children to be familiar with the process, so it will be a muscle memory thing. Give children an opportunity to be a survivor, not a victim.”

Sally added, “We have our officers walk through schools during summer and holidays. We are familiar. It’s part of our training.”

Taylor thanked the first responders in school. “They do a fantastic job,” he said.

One of the concerns from a parent was about security guards randomly entering bathrooms.

Valles spoke about recent school bathroom suicides.

“It’s important to check bathrooms,” he said. “Security wards do hourly bathroom checks to keep students safe.”

He went on to share his school experiences in the 1980s and what happened in school bathrooms. “People fought, got bullied, smoked, cut class,” he said.

“Guards have one foot in and one foot out. Hourly checks are not to harass. Hourly checks are not to abuse but to make sure students are safe.”

Another parent wanted to know what safety concerns the district is prioritizing. Valles answered, “Behavioral health, propped doors, mental health, building relationships with students.”

A concerned parent wanted to know why children must practice for armed intruders and why not let law enforcement and staff practice without students present.

“The law governs what we’re mandated to do,” Taylor said. “We say it’s a drill when it’s a drill. They are not optional. They are mandated. Our drills are age-appropriate. We do not want a drill to traumatize our students. Parents are notified immediately after a drill. We don’t do our drills with fake guns or blood on the ground. We don’t do mock shootings.”

Valles added, “Drilling is going to give them a fighting chance. Officers can save our children quicker knowing where they are.”

To learn more about the South Orange and Maplewood School District, visit: