By Mike Lyons
Chairman, Board of Education
To the Editor:
NORWALK, Conn. — It is unfortunate that the apparently false alarm about gunfire at Cranbury School occurred before our new safety / security program could be fully implemented. The plan was explained to our teachers at their convocation last week, and each of our schools is appointing a school safety committee. The committees are charged with adapting the general safety program to their particular schools by the beginning of October.
However, the good news is that the school staff, students and police at Cranbury followed the general procedures mandated for all our schools beautifully. Under the new plan, the school administration, when initiating a lockdown, calls the Police Department directly and coordinates with them before notifying the central office. The staff and students at Cranbury did everything they were expected to, and the police response was fast and massive.
Needless to say, our first priority in implementing the new safety plan has been to see to it that the kids are safe and that the police response is as vigorous as possible – and Cranbury proved that this objective has been achieved.
A next priority objective is communication with parents about events such as this. I met with Superintendent (Manny) Rivera on Friday morning to go over a variety of items, and this school safety topic was the first item on our agenda. Although plans are already under way to use the Reverse 911 system, we agreed that, with ‘smart phones’ possessed almost universally now, we are assigning our new chief of technology, innovation and partnerships, Ralph Valenzisi, the job of instituting a text-message alert system to get messages out to parents at affected schools quickly. This is commonplace on college campuses now, and would be an improvement over the current, slower systems. In the case of the event at Cranbury, a text to parents along these lines would have been helpful: “Alert: As a precautionary measure the Cranbury school has been put on lockdown as police are investigating suspicious activity in the vicinity. There is no immediate danger and the school building is secure. For your child’s safety, no one is being allowed entry or exit from the building until the police give the ‘all clear’ sign. You will not be able to enter the school campus until authorized by the police, so please avoid the area; we appreciate your allowing the police the room and space needed to conclude their investigation. We will notify you of further developments.” A follow-up message would then have been sent when the lockdown ended.
The need for a messaging system like this was made clear by the well-meaning but risky actions taken by some Cranbury parents. According to the police, when Cranbury parents started arriving at the school after news reports appeared and were told by the police to stay back and that the building was locked down, some parents actually walked through the woods (that the police were searching for a possible shooter) to try to bypass the police and get into the school. They are fortunate that they were not mistaken by the officers for a shooter. Hopefully a quick messaging system will keep all parents informed, and also discourage others from taking risky steps on their own.
Although we already have telephone numbers for R-911 calls, we will need to survey parents at all our schools to find their preferred method of being contacted (text, email, phone), and then set up the database so only parents from the affected school(s) are notified in the event of future incidents.
There are many more steps to be taken, of course. We are having all of our schools audited by the Police Department for security issues (about two thirds of the school audits have been completed), and the job of the individual schools’ safety committees is to identify particular issues that need addressing at each school. Our overall safety committee is also looking at physical improvements to school buildings, new security hardware and software, etc., to work into our plans going forward. Obviously we can’t get these all done at once, but they are being planned and developed as we speak.
Improved communications with parents is a high priority for the board and Superintendent Rivera; adding a communications director was a key component of Dr. Rivera’s reorganization plan approved by the board two weeks ago. We intend to improve communications across the board, with everything from televising of Board of Education meetings to text messaging regarding school emergencies.
We should all be pleased with the performance of Cranbury School’s and the Police Department in keeping our kids safe this week. We will continue our efforts to make sure their parents get the most up to date information available when emergencies of any kind arise.