Emotions ran high and comments were pointed at times — occasionally rising to shouts from the packed auditorium — but parents, administrators and town leaders were mostly respectful of each other at a “Town Hall on School Safety” held at Maplewood Memorial School Monday night, June 8. (Scroll down for video.)
The Town Hall followed a “rough week” in the South Orange-Maplewood School District that saw two incidents with students bringing weapons to school and rampant rumors about potential violent activity.
No-one was injured in the incidents.
A panel of local leaders sat on the stage to report to the community and take comments. The panel included: Acting Superintendents of Schools James Memoli, MMS Principal Jerrill Adams, Columbia High School Principal Elizabeth Aaron, South Orange Police Chief James Chelel, Maplewood Police Chief Robert Cimino, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLua, Board of Education President Wayne Eastman and three members of the Board of Education: Donna Smith, Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and Johanna Wright. Eastman explained that, due to meeting rules, not more than four members of the Board of Education could sit on the dais. He acknowledged four other members in the audience: Beth Daugherty, Elizabeth Baker, Jeff Bennett and Maureen Jones.
The meeting began with Acting Superintendent Memoli reviewing the two incidents. Memoli said that “in both cases prompt action was taken by school staff and police” and “no-one was harmed.” He also noted that he was “incredibly proud of the students who came forward” especially since there is “pressure not to be a snitch.” Memoli noted that the many school drills and the district’s partnership with the police “paid off.”
However, Memoli noted that the incidents “raised questions and concerns.”
“None of us can guard against all anomalous situations,” he said and followed that a three-way partnership was needed between the schools, police and families.
Memoli asked that parents help in educating their children about gun violence and “perhaps advocate for policies that stem the flow of guns.” He asked that parents monitor their children’s use of social media and that parents discipline their children. “We cannot do this alone,” said Memoli.
Memoli also said that each school has a crisis management team, locked doors, security cameras, a code of conduct, building initiatives on anti-bullying, social workers, employee support and more. However, he said, “We know that our work is not done.” He noted that there were “those students for whom it is not working” and said the district would “welcome the talent and expertise of the community.”
Jerrill Adams, MMS Principal, gave a spirited address filled with pride in his school. Adams, who like Aaron is in his first year as principal, noted that the “vast majority” of the 800 students at MMS come to school “excited and motivated” to learn. He noted that, on the last NJASK test, 83% of MMS students scored proficient or advanced proficient on Math (with more than 50% advanced), and 75% scored proficient or advanced proficient on English Language Arts (with 55% at the “highest level”).
Interestingly, Adams explained that of the 52 suspensions thus far in the school year, 31 had been for the “same 10 students.” Adams said that 96% of students have never been suspended. The other 4%, he noted, are entitled to a “free and open education” and are allowed back into school once they have been through a rigorous process that includes support services and counseling — and the involvement of their parents.
Adams felt that the school was already making improvements that would bear fruit in the 2015-16 school year, as the school gained an advisory period and continued with restorative services. Regarding recent reports of girls being groped in the hallways and subject to sexual comments, Adams said that all incidents were investigated and “handled immediately” and that “every single teacher and young lady is deserving of respect.”
Adams also said, “No teachers have been told there is a district mandate to reduce suspensions.”
CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron noted that the rumors about widespread fighting at Columbia High School were false and said that recent incidents were the product of the actions of a “very small number of students.” Aaron read from a letter that she sent to parents over the weekend (see excerpt below), addressing rumors and promoting upcoming events and other good news at CHS.
In response to a parent asking if there was gang activity at the high school, Aaron said, “We work very closely with the police departments” and that gang activity is “not currently a concern.” Aaron added that “any rumor of gang activity is fully investigated.”
New information revealed in the meeting included the disclosure by Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca that the MMS student had obtained his gun at home. Chief Cimino revealed that the boy’s parent had been charged with failure to secure his weapon. (The weapon had been legally obtained by the parent.)
In addition, while district staff confirmed that the MMS student would never return to the district, Memoli ultimately explained that the CHS student taken into custody for possession of an airsoft gun and kitchen-style knife was not barred permanently and could be reinstated after a year.
“What assurances do we have after a year that he is a changed individual?” asked a parent.
Aaron quieted the room by responding that as building principal she ultimately would make the decision of whether or not to reinstate the student. “I certainly would make the entrance of any student contingent on if they can be safe in our building and on their impact on the safety and wellness of others,” said Aaron.
Later, Chief Cimino explained that airsoft guns are not guns by law and that the student was actually charged with possession regarding the kitchen-style knife. Cimino said, however, that it was “grossly inappropriate” to bring an airsoft to school and was also dangerous “because people think it’s real.”
As parents, students, and teachers took to the microphones to address the panel, some expressed disappointment with the meeting format which limited speakers to two minutes and did not ensure immediate response (the district is putting together an FAQ 0r Frequently Asked Questions document on school safety to be posted shortly on the district website), while others commended the district and the schools.
A couple of parents asked for a “zero tolerance” policy on school violence. Memoli said that the district “assesses each case on its own merits.” He also said that he found that no tolerance policies were “generally not effective.”
Some parents complained that their children had been suspended when they themselves where the victim of bullying.
The first speaker — a graduate of MMS and CHS — lamented the loss of programs that had engaged at-risk students and paired them with activities or teachers/mentors. A current senior at CHS questioned how staff at the school could connect with a majority African-American student population when “the staff doesn’t reflect the student body.”
“We need a support system that is clearly lacking,” the student said.
One parent who suggested metal detectors received a loud negative reaction from the crowd. (Later, Chief Chelel cautioned against tipping the balance from schools being “educational facilities” to becoming “correctional facilities.”) Another parent received a similarly negative reaction when he questioned CHS having a moment of silence for Michael Brown.
A number of parents questioned that the district was doing enough to ensure there were not non-resident students in the district. Memoli noted that an effort to re-register all 10th graders a few years ago netted only 5 illegal students. A retired Maplewood police officer took to the microphone to note that he is the current residency inspector — to assure parents that the district is indeed “checking homes.”
Panel members and audience members all commended the students who spoke up as well as staff. One parent called MMS Principal Adams a “hero.” Adams deflected the praise, saying that an Assistant Vice Principal walked the student to the office. Adams also noted that “every staff member showed up the day after the event.”
Parents and panelists were also adamant that the meeting include tangible results. A number of parents called for a “point person” to whom they could go with suggestions and offers of aid, as well as for updates and answers.
Mayor DeLuca assured parents that the Township would follow up. “This is a community-wide concern and we will be working with the schools,” said DeLuca. The mayor noted that the different jurisdictions often work in “silos” but that “this needs a more horizontal approach.” DeLuca said that the MPD’s Clergy Alliance as well as Maplewood’s neighborhood associations would be getting involved. He also said that the towns would work with Essex County to organize gun buy-back/drop-off programs.
DeLuca added, “Personally I want to say that we have too many guns in our society and we need to get rid of them.”
He added, “Maplewood and South Orange are great communities, safe communities to raise your kids.”
By the end of the meeting, Board of Education member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad said she was “proud that we came together tonight as a community” when “we could have torn each other apart.”
The following is an excerpt of a letter sent by Principal Elizabeth Aaron to the Columbia High School community on June 8, 2015:
Thank you to the many families who have reached out this week to let us know how their students are doing in light of the recent events at CHS and MMS. We regret the choices that students and their families have made that led to the incidents and assure you that we work every day to make sure conditions at CHS are safe and secure for teaching and learning.
To that end, please know that CHS, contrary to rumors and online conversations, was not at any time in a lockdown on Thursday. Information about a student in potential possession of a weapon – real or otherwise – had already led to that student being safely with school administrators when I made the decision to place CHS students and staff into a “Code Yellow”. A “Code Yellow” is a ‘shelter-in-place’ status in which we ask all to remain where they are with closed doors so that we may make any decisions we need to in order to manage the building and the situation without interference. As we continued to work with the Police, we continued to update the staff and students periodically over our PA system, letting them know to continue instruction, and within about 15 minutes, we were able to let them know we were anticipating release from the Code Yellow. Please take a moment to review with your student that it is critical in any emergency situation that students listen to and follow all directions from their teachers and any other staff in charge during such a situation. The smooth and safe end to our Code Yellow – and your students’ attention to our state-mandated drills each month – is testament to our students’ good decision-making and we thank you and them for it.
Also contrary to the rumors, there have not been “three weeks of fights” or “fights every day” or “nine fights in one week” at CHS. Over the past week, a very small number of students chose to start and/or resolve conflict with violence. Two of the altercations happened off-school grounds. One happened outside during lunch, and one happened when two students chose to disregard school rules about where they were supposed to be during class time. This past Friday was a smooth and regular school day at CHS. While our average daily absentee rate was a bit higher than usual, nowhere near “half of Columbia” stayed home. In fact, it seemed to us that students were being particularly aware of the need to be thoughtful and considerate to our staff and each other throughout the day. We are proud of them.
We regret the choices a very small number of students made last week that so negatively impacted many of us, and our school administrators, support, guidance, and counseling staff continue to offer multiple routes to conflict resolution and mediation for all of our students and their parents and guardians. We thank and continue to work with the Maplewood and South Orange police departments when students break the law. Students who break school rules and state laws will encounter consequences as appropriate.
On Friday morning, I addressed our students about the lockdown and weapon recovery at Maplewood Middle School. I reminded students that the drills we engage in at school, as required by state law, are so that in the event of a situation such as ours on Thursday, all staff and students are protected as law enforcement agencies do their work. I also reminded students of the high expectations we have for their behavior, our commitment to their safety and learning, and our focus on learning through our final exams. My remarks to students in such a public venue is, of course, general to protect the privacy of students involved in these events.