Fort Lee Superintendent Returns, Says He Wants Police in Every School
Steven Engravalle said he would reach out to Fort Lee’s police chief to discuss plans for continued school security in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn., as parents expressed strong concerns Monday.
Fort Lee’s Superintendent of Schools, attending his first public school board meeting since finishing his two-month leave of absence, said Monday that school security should be a priority, especially in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn. in December, and that if he had it his way, there would be a police officer in every public school building in the Fort Lee district.
Superintendent Steven Engravalle also pledged to reach out to the Chief of the Fort Lee Police Department Tuesday.
The issue of security was first raised at Monday’s special business meeting by new board member David Sarnoff, who noted that committee assignments were made earlier in the evening, and that he is now on the security committee, along with Esther Han Silver and Joseph Surace.
Saying he had spent a lot of time prior to the meeting reviewing a 2011 security audit, Sarnoff said the issue was “certainly an urgent and crucial topic that’s on not only the school district’s mind but the community’s mind.”
“The security committee is going to schedule a meeting with [Engravalle] Tuesday, and I believe there’s a meeting later in the week with law enforcement and first responders and the mayor as well,” Sarnoff said. “I want the community to know that the board is being active on security issues.”
Engravalle said he believes the only way to prevent tragedies such as the one that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School is to have “the threat and presence of a trained law enforcement officer,” although he also said school officials “can never be 100 percent sure of anything.”
“Not a security guard, but a trained Fort Lee police officer in this instance,” Engravalle said, adding that he wasn’t sure how the community would react to such a stance. “I’d love to have a police officer in every building who is part of the community in the building itself … I’d love to have one in each building.”
Engravalle said that he had specific ideas he plans to take up with Fort Lee Police Chief Keith Bendul and Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, but that he couldn’t go into details at Monday’s public meeting.
“I would do everything in my power to put a police officer in each building,” Engravalle said. “I think that’s the only way to do it.”
Board president Yusang Park said the board wants to have a “systematic plan and actions and procedures in place” to ensure the safety of all students and staff members.
“I think that we will be taking care of that as a district and as a committee,” Park said.
But several parents expressed strong concerns that since the first week after the tragedy in Newtown, they haven’t seen much police presence around their children’s schools, if any at all.
“We can’t keep having meetings,” said one parent, making reference to an incident at Fort Lee School No. 3 last year in which a Fort Lee principal was attacked. “Something’s got to be done. The parents deserve it; the children deserve it.”
Surace said that when it comes to school security, everybody in the district plays a role, and that putting police officers in school buildings might not necessarily solve the problem. Illustrating that point, Surace said, “You can put 10 cops at the front door,” but that if someone breaks in a back window that was left open when it should have been closed, the result could be devastating in spite of the officers’ presence.
“Security is everybody’s job, whether you’re a janitor, whether you’re a teacher or an administrator,” Surace said.
Board member Candace Romba said she believes that after what happened in Connecticut, Fort Lee residents “would be very happy if there at least was a police officer.”
“I know it’s money, but I’m certain that we can make a phone call and just have extra police just on their regular duty driving around,” Romba said.
“I’m going to reach out to ask that it be done tomorrow,” Engravalle replied.
Monday’s special business meeting was supposed to have been to award vendor contracts for professional services, including appointing a board attorney, construction attorney and labor attorney, but there was no agenda and therefore nothing for the board to vote on. As it turns out, that will have to wait until Thursday.
“We have to make the right decision in a timely manner; not a quick decision,” Park said, announcing that yet another special meeting will take place on Thursday at 8 p.m.
School officials issued a notice for Thursday’s meeting shortly after Monday’s meeting started.
“Those positions will be interviewed on Thursday, and we will be coming out to public meeting at [8 p.m.],” Park said. “And by then, hopefully, we will be able to appoint those three positions that are critically and most crucially needed.”