For the first time since its creation earlier this month the Howell Public Schools Safety Task Force delivered a report on ways to protect the students and staff of the district.
As a result of the work the board agreed to hire a Director of Security though specific duties and salary are yet to be worked out
Board member Tim O'Brien who serves as one of the chairmen of the group said through their first meetings the task force had considered the possibility of adding the new position and looking to hire a firm to provide school safety officers for the buildings. The latter proposal was voted down by members of the board.
O'Brien said the district's director of security would, "provide leadership, personnel supervision and coordination of safety and security functions of the Howell Schools." He also said he saw the safety officers serving much the same role the school resource officers from the Howell Police Department had served in the past. "There seemed to be consensus that it would provide security, but would also be a part of the school environment to have more of a school resource officer approach," he said.
During his presentation O'Brien referred to information provided by members of the local police department at the board's last meeting about ways to improve security. "The events of Newtown have made it impossible to look back and say what could have happened," he said. "Their recommendation is to have someone in the building with the appropriate level of force."
Suzanne Brennan said she recently met with representatives from 10 of the local schools. At that meeting she said they expressed an interest to explore further but were unsure of what final steps should be taken. She said they wanted to know what any changes would cost and what would be involved for students on a daily basis. "The feeling I got from the ladies was they weren't necessarily ready to take the leap into having armed personnel," she said.
After the last meeting of the board, Brennan said she was "a little confused about what our public wants, what our community is actually asking for," as residents at that time had spoken in favor of the added security guards.
As a way of finding out how the community felt Al Miller said he would support a survey being distributed to the community to gauge their interests in any potential changes. Miller also said he supported the director position and seconded both of O'Briens motions.
One of the most vocal members against O'Brien's Suggestions was John Van Noy. As the chairman of the finance committee Van Noy said he believed his committee should "be in charge of doing this process," to determine if it would be economically feasible for the district.
Van Noy said he had recently attended a presentation last week where Chief Raymond J. Hayducka, President of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police spoke. During that presentation Van Noy said the Chief reported that he was against having an outside agency working in the schools in an armed security position. He said those in attendance were "strongly urged not to jump the gun and bring in a third party to manage the process."
As a board member Van Noy also said he believed his colleagues could act in the best interests of the community without sending out a poll. "The presumption is that you've elected someone who are leaders and with all their heart and soul they will look at all of the issues and not let anything pull them aside," he said.
Van Noy said he did not believe putting armed security in the school buildings was a good idea. "The point is to help people, not to creat a battleground," he said. "
Stephen M. Levine said over the course of the day there were "1000 people who have their eyes open," to identify any students who could pose a threat to other people in the district. "Every person in this school from the custodian to the school secretaries, they see children in ways that the staff cannot."
That group also includes bus drives, aides and paraprofessionals. "They have ears that staff inside the building may not be hearing in terms of student to student communication."
Before the board voted O'Brien said he disagreed with Van Noy that the issue should start with the finance committee. "It's a safety issue, not a money issue," he said. "What we're talking about here is the safety of our children, not how much it's going to cost."
He also said he believed the board members should be leaders but in a different way than Van Noy. "I think we need to lead by taking the path to putting our children's safety first and foremost," he said. If the decisions the board made resulted in taxes being raised, they should dsicuss it with the public at that time.
O'Brien said that is something the board would need to discuss and inform the public about. "Don't make it a choice between an iPad and our own children's safety," he said. "You can't have a safe environment if there's the potential threat of a Newton occurring in this district."
Chuck Welsh, one of the newest members of the board, said he believed the board needed to be "careful," with their actions going forward. "We have to be careful implying that without this our kids aren't safe," he said.
Welsh said the Howell schools are among the safest in the state and that students are generally safer in schools than nearly anywhere else. "No matter what we do we can't guarantee or protect ourselves from the last thing that happened because it's going to be different from the next thing that happens."
Board President Mary Cerretani also agreed that the students in Howell schools were in good hands. "Our children are safe and we feel that we are providing them with a safe environment," she said. She said that was, "a credit to not only the administrative staff but also the school personnel for keeping them safe."
When the vote was taken for the director of security position Jeanne DePompo and Van Noy were the two no votes as the measure passed. O'Brien, Miller and Brennan were the three votes in favor of hiring the outside contractor for the school security officers.
The board is scheduled to meet next on Feb. 13 at Middle School North.