We are all unfortunately too well aware of the incident last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. There are no words to describe the pain we all feel for the Newtown community, and the loss of innocent children and the adults who died while protecting them.
A loss of this magnitude, undertaken in such a manner, is unspeakable.
And while our thoughts and prayers go out to that community, it is also understandably human nature to think of our own vulnerabilities in circumstances such as this. As caring human beings, we want to protect our children and educators at all times and in all of our schools.
It is for that reason that we wanted to reach out to all members of our community to remind and reassure everyone that the Westfield Public School District, in collaboration with our Town’s public safety professionals, and County and State authorities, has long had a comprehensive emergency plan in place, which is reviewed and practiced on a regular basis with our students, our educators, and the administration of each school building in the District.
And while our Superintendent of Schools undertakes an ongoing dialogue with our Chief of Police to ensure our plan remains current and viable, the Superintendent was in immediate contact with the Chief last Friday to ensure we were taking every immediate precaution in the near term. Our police professionals and school authorities, most of whom are parents themselves, have our children’s and educators’ well-being at the forefront of all deliberations and action plans.
Earlier this week, a joint meeting was held between the Town and the School District to discuss emergency preparedness in light of this recent tragedy. In attendance were Mayor Andrew Skibitsky, Public Safety Committee Chairwoman JoAnn Neylan, Police Chief David Wayman, Deputy Fire Chief David Kelly, Town Administrator Jim Gildea, Board of Education President Rich Mattessich, Board of Education Vice President Rosanne Kurstedt, Superintendent Dr. Margaret Dolan, and four members of the School District’s Emergency Management Team, Mike Weissman, Jeanette Munoz, David Duelks and Jim DeSarno.
Many good points were raised during the meeting, which is intended to be the first of many such meetings during which the Town and School District will continue to ensure our safety protocols remain appropriate and balanced. And although the safety protocol itself is maintained in a confidential manner, we do want to remind you of certain procedures that are currently in place and other actions that have been considered:
· Dr. Dolan has spoken with every principal and reviewed safety procedures for all ten buildings. Some immediate steps were taken to secure all sections of all buildings. Staff and parents have been understanding of these changes, even when they make everyday arrivals more difficult. Remaining concerns or questions are being compiled with suggestions coming from principals, staff and parents. These suggestions are being investigated and will be reviewed with law enforcement.
· Counselors have been at every school in the District to provide support and information to help teachers and students in dealing with their thoughts for those in Newtown, and in discussing their understandably heightened concerns for personal safety.
· A few days before the Connecticut tragedy, the School District’s Emergency Management Team met and had planned for security audits at every school building in the District to be undertaken in collaboration with the Police and Fire Departments. This Emergency Management Team meets on a monthly basis to ensure best practices are in place, and will make this meeting with Town officials a priority in January.
· Members of law enforcement have always worked closely with officials from all of our schools and are very responsive and cooperative to issues that arise from time to time throughout the school year. Members of law enforcement both from Westfield and Union County have also come and worked with and trained our principals and other professionals. The police also use our buildings to conduct their own trainings so that they are familiar with each building should an emergency situation arise. The New Jersey Department of Education has also provided training for all principals. The School District’s nurses also have participated in specific training regarding crisis management.
· Members of the Westfield Police and Fire Departments have overseen the various drills that are conducted in our schools and have from time to time helped to implement their suggestions for improving protocols.
· We utilize doorway cameras with a two-way intercom in our schools and visitors have to be “buzzed in” for the door to open. We are looking at this protocol at each school building in the District to ensure that consistent practices are followed across the District. This has resulted in some immediate changes and we are considering additional actions in this regard.
· While unfortunate, we must note that access to our school buildings will be a little more time consuming and cumbersome, and, perhaps, a little less friendly. We ask for your understanding in that regard and will note that all school personnel have been required to follow the “buzz in” process noted above. It is, and unfortunately needs to be, the accepted norm that we no longer prop open a door for convenience, or hold open a door out of kindness to others. While that has always been the policy, human nature is such that we want to be kind to each other by helping others in. Access to school buildings will have to be our exception and an area of zero tolerance.
· School district staff is required to wear name tags. Visitors to the school are required to immediately report to the principal’s office to sign in and to receive a visitor’s badge which they must wear prominently while visiting the school and return upon their departure. This is another area where our practice may have become more lenient for convenience and one which we will require going forward.
· We are undertaking a review of our existing emergency alarm systems and communication methods in the event of an emergency. We already have some ideas for improvements which will require research and follow up. That will occur in short order.
· We are fortunate to have experts in public safety living within the Westfield community who have already volunteered to work with us as we continually review our safety protocols. These individuals come from various law enforcement backgrounds such as the FBI. We look forward to their input and will confidentially reach out for assistance where appropriate.
· We always welcome suggestions from the public and we consider every one of them. We will continue the hard work of balancing the benefits of any such suggestion against both the tangible and intangibles costs of its implementation. We all understand the unfortunate reality that no system can prevent every act of violence. Our actions will be guided by our concern for our children and educators and we will implement those suggestions that help to achieve their safety in the most appropriate fashion.
These are just some of the activities that are ongoing or that we are considering at this time.
As parents, guardians, and residents of Westfield, we all need to know that the safety of all Westfield students and educators is a top priority. The Westfield Public Schools and the Town of Westfield have a history of working together on crisis preparedness, to ensure the safety of all our citizens. That partnership today is stronger than ever.
With the school break beginning next week, we wish all of you a peaceful time off and a Happy New Year.
Andrew Skibitsky, Mayor of Westfield
Margaret Dolan, Superintendent, Westfield Public Schools
Richard Mattessich, President, Westfield Board of Education