Mayor: Vigilance key in matters of security

Staff Writer

PLUMSTED — In the wake of the Dec. 14 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 first-graders and six educators dead at the hands of a lone gunman, school administrators around the country are re-examining the safety procedures their districts have in place.

On Jan. 16 the Plumsted School District Board of Education held a joint public meeting with the Township Committee to discuss precautions being taken by both bodies to protect people in the community’s schools.

“School safety is something that is on the forefront of all of our minds. Certainly the most recent, horrific and tragic events that have happened have brought a real serious dose of reality to us,” Plumsted Superintendent of Schools Karen Jones said. “School safety has always been and will continue to be our first and foremost priority in the school district.”

Without divulging specific details of the district’s security efforts, Jones and New Egypt Middle School Assistant Principal Richard DeMarco, who also serves as the district’s emergency management coordinator, outlined some of the steps currently being taken.

“It’s a whole new world, unfortunately,” DeMarco said.

In addition to annual “tabletop” security drills, in which administrators run through a simulated incident, and annual staff training on security measures, the district also employs the use of a crisis response team in each school.

High-tech systems have been installed in recent years, including an improved twoway communication system that allows personnel in Plumsted’s schools to contact each other more easily, along with an increased presence of security cameras and security cards for restricted areas in the district.

According to board President Harry Miller, most of the improvements have been paid for with grant funding.

In the near future, Jones said, police officers will have remote access to the district’s security cameras in their patrol vehicles in an effort to pinpoint a threat during an incident.

“We have an increased police presence at our schools since the tragedy [in Newtown] and the police have been very helpful to us,” Jones said.

During the school year, students and staff members in all schools are required to complete fire drills and security drills on a regular basis. Police, fire and emergency medical personnel are given notice of the drills in advance.

In recent years, administrators have had to lock down the district a handful of times when incidents occurred in the vicinity of Plumsted, Jones said.

“We have had some real-life situations … and fortunately nothing happened in our schools. The good from that is that we were able to take a real-life situation, use it as a drill and be able to debrief and learn from that,” Jones said.

In the event of an attack, DeMarco said the course of action in each classroom would not be much different from what teachers did at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He said teachers and students are told to “lock the door [and] wait for the cavalry.”

“What I hear in my circles of people is that [Sandy Hook Elementary School] did everything right … They did all the things we practice and that was the result, unfortunately,” Jones said.

The district currently employs one school resource officer who serves all four schools at a cost of about $20,000 to $25,000 annually. That measure, however, was not enough for many parents who attended the meeting and cited a need for an armed police officer to patrol school halls.

Police Chief Matthew Petrecca said the Plumsted Police Department, at its current staffing level (12 full-time officers), could not provide the level of service some residents were asking for in the schools.

The chief said he would need to hire six to eight additional officers to do everything residents are seeking for the schools.

Mayor David Leutwyler said hiring more police officers is not workable from a financial standpoint. In Plumsted, a police officer makes an average of $68,000 a year and the officer’s benefits package costs about $30,000, for a total annual cost of about $100,000 per officer, he said.

One resident asked if the school district could pay for police officers in the schools.

District officials said that could be an option, but at a cost to taxpayers and students.

That would “probably result in program cuts and tax increases,” school board member Jon Hague said.

“The township has not raised their taxes for years … if they’re not going to do it, then we’re going to have to and we’re going to have to pass on some of the [cost] to the taxpayer,” school board member Garrett Midgett said.

Municipal officials and school administrators asked residents to remain vigilant about what is happening around them and to report any suspicious activity as officials work to address security issues in the district.

“It really comes down to the diligence of the community in order to make sure the security safeguards [throughout the district] are working effectively and properly,” Miller said.

Leutwyler agreed with Miller, saying that residents need “to be aware of our surroundings. You know when something is right and when something is out of place. If you see something, call.”