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Fort Lee Borough, School Officials Continue to Mull Security

Officials plan to meet again this week before Mayor Mark Sokolich calls a town hall meeting on school security. In the meantime, the mayor said the borough is moving forward with a plan to place two full-time SROs in Fort Lee schools.

Fort Lee school officials recently met with borough and police officials and are planning another meeting this week to address school security issues, as parents, school employees and community members continued to express concern Monday.

Fort Lee Board of Education member David Sarnoff, who serves on the school board’s security committee, said Monday that school officials raised a number of concerns shared by board members and the public during a roughly two-hour meeting last week.

“We talked about immediate action to address security and medium- and long-range plans,” Sarnoff said at Monday’s school board meeting. “Those plans will also be in close consultation with the Fort Lee Police Department, specifically the chief and deputy chief, as well as Mayor and Council, because we truly view this as a community issue—not just a Board of Education issue alone.”

But Sarnoff also said the board was cautioned not to disclose precise details of some of the plans being considered “because we don’t want to telegraph to the public actions that would be taken.”

“Video cameras and surveillance that tie in with the police is something that is certainly being discussed and considered, and we will be following through on that in more detail,” he said, adding that another meeting with the Fort Lee Mayor and Council, police, fire and other first responders would be taking place soon.

Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich Tuesday called the meeting “very, very productive,” saying he convened it to let school officials know what the borough was planning to do, get their input and avoid duplication of efforts. He said that while he was planning to call a town hall meeting on school security this week or next, he wants to have one more “summit” before that happens.

“You reach a point where someone needs to take action relatively quickly but responsibly,” Sokolich said, noting that the plan he announced last week to place two “seasoned and experienced” policemen in the schools to serve as full-time school resource officers (SROs), at the borough’s expense, is moving forward, especially since the local government is in a “police hiring phase.”

“I’m not waiting three, four or five months to put SROs on,” Sokolich said. “If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right away. If we make the future assessment that two aren’t needed or, alternatively, that the cost of one of them can be absorbed by the Board of Ed., then we’ll do that. But the primary mission now is to make sure that we take action and we don’t do it foolishly.”

Short-term plans call for increases in perimeter surveillance and inspection of schools and increased police presence during pick-up and drop-off times, according to Sokolich. In addition, he said, officials are discussing “citizen on patrol,” a training program he said is required of all borough employees and that he hopes to expand to teachers, school administrators and even members of the public. He called all of these efforts an “amping up” of initiatives that “already exist in town.”

“This is not completely reactionary to Newtown,” Sokolich said. “We need to take these steps, and we’ll just continue to assess and re-assess. The primary objective is the safety of our children and almost as important is the peace of mind of the parents and families.”

But several community members spoke out on the issue of school security at Monday’s school board meeting expressing anything but peace of mind.

Suggestions included installing video cameras that can be monitored by police, having working phones in classrooms and making sure all school doors remain locked. Some said officials should consider hiring retired police officers with qualified weapons at an hourly rate to save taxpayers money, while others argued that having armed guards in schools can potentially scare children, especially the younger ones, in a place they previously saw as safe.

Theodora Jackson, a secretary at School No. 3, urged school officials to meet with secretaries to get their unique point of view.

“I would like to have someone get all the secretaries together and sit with us and tell you what our day is like with that door,” she said, adding that kids opening doors and parents “walking in and thinking they can just run upstairs” are of particular concern.

“It’s not really set up very well, and it is scary after everything that happened,” Jackson said. “The parents have to be spoken to because they had so many freedoms before that they don’t have now.”

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Sharon Amato said she’s met with principals in the district who have shared the concerns of the staff members in their respective buildings.

“So some of the information that you think we may not know about, we do,” Amato said.

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