SOMSD alters security drill policy to address community concerns

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — On Dec. 4, Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor sent a letter to the South Orange-Maplewood School District community regarding changes to the district’s security drill policy. The letter is below:

“Student and staff safety continues to be a top priority for our school district and practicing safety drills is a critical step in ensuring that our students are able to respond quickly in the case of an actual emergency. Over the past several months, our school community has been having a lot of productive conversations around the safety and security of our district. These conversations have included: concerns around security drill mandates; mandated student identification card lanyards; security guards; ensuring the fortification of our exits, etc.; and attending to our students’ emotional well-being as part of the drill planning process. 

“We understand the sensitivity around these topics. The overall subject of emergency and emergency response procedures can be as uncomfortable for parents as it is for some students. As a parent myself, I understand how concerning receiving calls about the school’s responses to emergencies can be. Although we hope never to have to use these situations aside from practice and drills, it is important to know that the district will always err on the side of caution to protect our students, staff and district.

“We have heard your parental concerns, and have also met repeatedly with our Board of Education, law enforcement, first responders, school and bargaining unit leaders, mental health specialists, external experts, student representatives, administrators and staff, as well as community advocates, to put forth best practices that are reasonable, forward-thinking and most importantly, effective. 

“In view of this, the district has a new security drill policy. Some highlights to the changes of this policy are:

  • We will state that the drill is a ‘drill’ during the event;
  • We will alert parents that a drill took place, before the end of the day;
  • We will shorten the drills to minimize the impact on our students, staff and administrators;
  • We will allow for teachers to have time to debrief/transition after these drills, to enable the students to ‘reset’ before returning to their applicable assignment/task;
  • We will ensure that accommodation of students with demonstrated anxiety or disabilities — including, but not limited to, students with IEPs and 504 plans — are addressed through the development of appropriate protocols; to this end, we will continue our work with Nancy Kislin, a renowned mental health expert who specializes in the impact of school drills; and,
  • We will review and revisit this policy annually to ensure we are serving our children, staff and community with best practices.

“We also understand that in this day and age of social media, messages about emergencies may be posted prior to us contacting you. Please know that the district’s top priority is to first and foremost perform important safety measures and attend to the safety of our students and staff. We will always provide the most accurate information possible, and will contact parents and guardians as quickly as possible. 

“Additionally, in concert with our security drill changes, we will be moving forward with the mandated wearing of school identifications with lanyards for Columbia High School students. After much discussion — with the BOE, administrators, teachers and students — and review, we believe this is a reasonable, yet critical request of our high school students and staff. It is our goal to photograph and issue new identifications with accompanying lanyards to every student at the high school between now and Jan. 17. The mandated wearing of these school identifications will go into effect on Jan. 21. 

“We are working with the Columbia High School Parent Organization and students on developing a ‘safety and security forum,’ where we can discuss this topic further. We understand the worry around these changes; however, please know that we as a district take our schools’ safety and security very seriously and believe these changes will increase our effectiveness in protecting your child and our staff. 

“Thank you very much for your continued support and partnership in working to ensure the safety of your children.”