It was a busy night for the Howell Board of Education, not only swearing in two new members, but also holding a public forum that brought out a large contingent of parents and representatives from the schools and the Howell Police Department.
Following longtime member Mary Cerretani's election as president of the board a public discussion was held on school safety following the recent school shooting in Newtown, CT. By the end of the night the board had passed two motions to direct the administration to look at ways to strengthen the entrances to the buildings and look into the possibility of bringing security personnel into the schools.
Ron Sanasac, the district's business administrator, who also serves as head of the township's Office of Emergency Management, started the discussion with presentation of the steps already being taken.
Sanasac said the district is constantly reviewing and updating their Crisis Response Plan and security protocols and that the schools are conducting a variety of drills to help students prepare for emergency situations. Security measures in the buildings include having just a single entry point, sign in protocols and key pad entrances at other points in the building.
Some of the parents in attendance said during the course of the meeting that they had concerns about the entrances to the buildings especially during the start of the day. Each building has the one entrance but during high traffic times like the start and end of the day the parents said it is easier for anybody to gain access to the buildings. There were also concerns raised about the safety of the buildings during after school activities. Board members and principals in attendance said those concerns would be addressed in the coming days to ensure the safety of the students.
Also taking part in the discussion were Chief Ronald Carter, Capt. Jeff Mayfield and Sgt. Chris Hill of the Howell Police Department who talked about their part in school safety and changes they have made. Chief Carter has said previously that the department will be increasing patrols around the schools and will also work with the district on any additional steps deemed needed.
One potential change that has been suggested is having armed police officers in each of the schools. While other districts like Marlboro have already instituted this program, Mayfield said Howell's department does not have the manpower needed to do that.
Sanasac also said that the district is looking at other security measures that can be implemented in the schools including "exterior door and window reinforcement," that could serve to help protect the buildings.
Board member Tim O'Brien presented both motions that were approved by the board giving the administration the ability to take the next steps in the process.
Capt. Mayfield said that work has been ongoing for many years to make sure the Howell schools are safe. "We've always looked at the schools since pre-Columbine as a very major concern for security," he said. The captain said the policies are in place and said it is important for the district to make sure they are properly implemented.
With four designated School Resource Officers including Sgt. Hill, Mayfield said they do their best to cover all the schools in town including Howell High School and the private schools. He also said having more trained and qualified security personnel could also help along with improved technology in the buildings.
Despite the tragic events in Newtown, Mayfield said schools are still a safe place for children to be. "Probability says the safest place for your child to be in the United States is in school," he said. "The ride there and back, being at home, being at a sporting event, those are all more dangerous than being at school."
He said the police department has always dealt with the possibilities of events happening in all of these locations. He also said it was important for districts to look at their security measures as closely as they do fire emergencies.
Also speaking during the discussion was Bill O'Brien, a teacher in the district and president of the Howell Township Education Association. "I represent 1000 pairs of eyes and ears," he said of not only the teacher but also bus drivers, paraprofessionals and others who work in and around the building. O'Brien said while he appreciated people discussing the safety of the teachers and staff they also want to be a part of the process. "I think we would like to have an opportunity to participate," he said. "I think when you have an emotional issue like this it's important that the people get a measured, tempered, response."
Several parents in attendance also offered to volunteer in a variety of ways to help keep students safe whether it was working during outdoor activities or on the buses.
Cerretani said the board will be putting together a safety committee in the coming weeks which would include board members, administrators, teachers and parents.
Also in attendance on Thursday night were Mayor Bill Gotto and Deputy Mayor Robert Nicastro. While neither spoke during the meeting Gotto said he believed the students in the Howell schools are in good hands. "First and foremost our kids are safe today," he said.
Whether it was discussed by the township council or the board of education, Gotto said he was most interested in feedback from the Howell Police Department working in conjunction with them. "If they told me something was wrong I would have done it already," he said of possible immediate changes.
If and when changes are made that will need to be paid for, Mayor Gotto said the costs for those changes can be addressed at that time.
The Mayor said he is confident in the department's ability to protect the schools as they have done in the past. "This is not the first time we responded to major incidents in this town and there's no reason to think we won't do it again," he said.
As they have done in the past, Gotto said the township will address the needs of the residents and the schools to ensure everyone's safety. "Everybody is almost challenging that we don't know what the exposure is or we don't know how to protect the people," he said. "We've been doing it all along, long before this event happened, while the event was going on and after the event."
Deputy Mayor Nicastro said the issue of safety is important for all residents of the township whether they have children in the district or not. "Whether you're a parent or not you value life. You're concerned," he said.
Nicastro said whatever decisions are made, "I just think that we have to do this the right way."
After the meeting Tim O'Brien said he believed it was important for the board to act in a timely fashion. "I think it's a challenge for us to try to do it in a thoughtful manner, but also be cognizant of the fact that time is of the essence," he said. "The paradigm has changed and there is a sense of urgency."
He also said he was glad to see such a large turnout from the public calling it, "invaluable."
Following the adoption of his motions O'Brien said he believed the district would work quickly to do what has to be done. "I don't know what we can do but we have to find out fast," he said. "We need to come up with a solution that prevents and deters something like that from happening in our district."
O'Brien also agreed that the Howell schools are currently safe, but that there is always room for improvement. "We have to reexamine what we consider safe," he said. "Our schools are safe but we also have to be prepared to take it to an even higher level of safety."
Cerretani said it is important for the students, staff and parents to feel that the schools are safe no matter what changes our made. "Whatever we can do to ensure that we need to do it," she said.
The new board president also said she was glad the parents had come out to share their views. "I think the parents brought several good points that need to be addressed and can be addressed immediately," she said.
There were many areas of concern raised during the meeting but one area of nearly unanimous agreement was crediting the work the local police department has done with the schools already. Cerretani pointed to Mayfield's saying that the district has been at the "cutting edge," of keeping the schools safe. "Our kids have been at the top of the line and the police department has done it for a lot of years," she said. "We've given them the ability to come into our buildings and do it and they've done it," she said.
The board is scheduled to meet again on Jan. 22 at Middle School North.