Nearly 100 residents and parents filled the second floor meeting room at the Fort Lee Community Center during Wednesday's Town Hall meeting to discuss the safety and security of Fort Lee schools.
The meeting, a response to the tragic events that happened in Newtown, Connecticut, was a collaborative effort between the Mayor and Council, emergency services and the Board of Education.
The panel included:
- Chief of Police Keith Bendul
- Lt. Patrick Kissane, President of the NJ Association of School Resource Officers (SRO); appointed to the Governor's Task Force on Student Safety
- Jimmy Park, President of the BOE
- Dr. Sharon Amato, Asst. Superintendent
- David Sarnoff, BOE member, Chair of Security Committee
- Helen Yoon, BOE member
- Esther Han Silver, BOE member
- Steve Curry, Fire Sub-Code Official
- John Pascale, Fire Official
- Paul Favia, Emergency Medical Services Coordinator
- Stephen Ferraro, OEM Coordinator
Mayor Mark Sokolich was the evening's moderator.
Bendul opened the evening by assuring the audience that he, and every member of his department, is committed to the safety of Fort Lee's children and is in the process of reviewing security plans within each school with the intent of putting new measures into place.
"Some of these operations we can discuss," Bendul said. "And some we can't."
In addressing the concerns of parents who want a more visible police presence at the schools, Bendul said there is a visible uniformed police presence at the schools during drop off and pick up, as well as detectives in unmarked cars. He also reported that uniformed officers are required to do walk-throughs of each school at all hours during the day, night and weekend. In addition to random checks, Bendul assured the audience that patrols of the schools are also being done throughout the evening with police checking doors and doing perimeter checks.
"We are increasing our footprint within the district," Bendul said.
Park stressed that the Board is committed to working "hand-in-hand" with government to ensure that the children are provided with a safe learning environment. He said that the "heart-breaking" and "bone-chilling" events of Newtown have the Board of Education re-evaluating their security procedures.
While many communities are talking about having a presence of armed guards in the schools--either hired security or retired police--Kissane cautioned turning schools into prisons and emphasized the specialized role that School Resource Officers (SRO) play within the school community.
SRO's are members of the police force, assigned by the Chief, authorized to carry a weapon and authorized to make arrests. According to Kissane, SRO's receive highly specialized training to handle the unique assignment of being an active presence within the school.
"SRO's serve as law enforcement officers, teachers and informal counselors to the students," Kissane said.
Bendul said that there are over 100 borough employees and volunteers (such as firefighters) out in the community every day who serve as the police department's "eyes and ears." Because they are out on the streets every day, Bendul said they have been trained by the Police Department to spot suspicious behavior and be aware of what they see going on around them.
"We're creating an environment where we're actively engaging people to care about your children," Bendul told the audience.
And more than just protecting children from active shooters, Bendul emphasized that they are also concerned with pedophiles, drugs and gangs.
"An active shooter is the worst case scenario," Bendul said. "We are prepared for that and all other situations that may arise, as well."
Curry said that his department attends every drill each school holds--fire drills, lockdowns, active shooters and bomb threats. A member of Fire Prevention, John Klein, is a retired Fort Lee police sergeant, a former Fire Chief and a certified bomb technician.
Additionally, Curry emphasized that the security initiatives that deal with drills have been in place long before the tragedy in Newtown.
"All emergency services in Fort Lee work cohesively as one," Curry said.
Present also was Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson who had spent the day attending the gun control hearings in Trenton. Weinberg briefly spoke about the need for more mental health resources in dealing with gun safety and control. Gordon said that he is committed to helping communities get funding for any security equipment or resources they need to protect the children.
Most of the questions from the audience were directed at Bendul and Park. Parents aired concerns that having only two SRO officers in the district is not enough. "Why can't we have an SRO officer in every school?" one parent pressed. "Having two cops is not enough. It's just not enough."
Bendul told the parents that this is something that they are looking into along with implementing other initiatives and assured them that in the event of a worst case scenario emergency, he can call for resources from surrounding towns, the county and even the state, if necessary. He also informed the audience that Fort Lee has its own SWAT team should they ever need to be utilized.
Rose Marie Manger, who drafted a resolution against gun violence recently adopted by the Mayor and Council, asked if there were any cameras in the school that are connected to the police station. Sarnoff said that is something the security committee is addressing.
Noticeably absent from the panel was Superintendent Steven Engravalle. When asked about his absence, the Board made no comment. However, Diane Sicheri, President of the Fort Lee Homeowners Association, questioned Engravalle's level of participation in these safety initiatives and how, without his approval, any of it can be passed.
After the meeting, when questioned about Engravalle's absence Sarnoff said that he could not comment, but offered, "The Board is upholding its obligation."
Repeated calls to Engravalle's extension went unanswered Thursday.