There are no plans to arm teachers, or install metal detectors.
For now, anyway.
But the Morris School District, like districts nationwide in the era of Parkland and Sandy Hook, is beginning to transform its schools into fortresses.
“I hate the fact that we are at this stage in our nation… but as a father, I feel very strongly this is a necessary step to take,” Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast told a sparsely attended public forum at Morristown High School on Tuesday.
He referred to the planned hiring of retired, armed police officers for the regional District’s eight elementary schools, as early as this spring.
Bullet-proof lamination already is on some school windows, and all windows in the District’s 10 schools will be getting it, Pendergrast added. Over the next three years, vestibules and kiosks will be installed inside school entrances, detaining visitors until they can be vetted.
While it may seem rude, the Superintendent acknowledged, staff and students are being instructed not to open school doors for anyone, even parents. Parents can expect restrictions when dropping off lunches and other items for their kids.
Panic buttons for faculty to signal authorities are ubiquitous, Pendergrast said. Lockdown drills are conducted twice monthly in every school.
By next semester, those drills will shift from locking classrooms, pulling down shades and cowering under desks to the new national paradigm: Run, Hide, Fight.
“The safest place during an active shooter event is somewhere else,” said retired Morris Township Police Capt. Rich Ferrone, hired in November as the District’s first manager of safety and operations.
Praying a shooter “doesn’t find you” no longer is considered the best option, Ferrone asserted. Run if you can. If cornered, “you can take him on with desks, chairs, books. Whatever you have can overwhelm him….so some can get away.”
One challenge vexing school officials is how to protect children without inflicting emotional harm, Pendergrast said.
“Kids are feeling anxious and they’re scared. And so am I, by the way,” he said.
One mother said her high school-aged daughter recently had a nightmare about failing to connect with 911 during a mass shooting.
Since the Valentine’s Day massacre of 17 students and staffers in Parkland, Fla., local students have participated in the National Student Walkout, the March For Lives and a Town Hall for Our Lives, to demand universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and other national gun law reforms.
The District’s safety-first stance sparked online public debate when officials kept students indoors for the Walkout.
Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who has confessed to shooting 33 former classmates, teachers and coaches with an assault rifle in Parkland, had a history of emotional and developmental problems and was expelled from Marjory Stone Douglas High School in his junior year.
Pendergrast said the Morris School District has taken many initiatives, some in response to a 2015 safety audit, designed to identify and help troubled students at an early age.
A data system called Power School enables administrators to track things like a pupil’s attendance and academic performance for warning signs, in real time.
The District has revamped its student code of conduct, beefed up anti-bullying- and internet safety policies, and redesigned its counseling program, Pendergrast said.
Morristown High School now has an assistant principal for each grade, instead of just one for the whole school. Each District school also has a crisis management team that meets twice per month, he said.
Additionally, the District has spent $2 million assuming control of bus operations that had been outsourced. This enhances security, Pendergrast said. And security “cameras are everywhere,” with more coming, he said.
Pendergrast suggested such measures are making the District safer.
Eighteen Eleven acts of violence–fights and assaults–have been reported so far this year, down from 45 in 2013.
Although the District serves more than 5,000 youths, including about 1,800 high schoolers from Morristown, Morris Township and Morris Plains, only a few dozen parents attended the forum.
Most who spoke commended administrators and police. Yet some also wanted to know how far things would go in the name of security.
District schools already have gone from welcoming places to “you can’t come in,” lamented one mom, a Girl Scout leader.
Pendergrast said his goal is not to restrict parents, but rather to create “structured access” so school personnel are aware of everyone inside their buildings at all times.
Pressed by a parent opposed to the arming of teachers, the Superintendent replied: “We haven’t discussed that.” Fielding another question, Pendergrast said metal detectors are impractical for the populous high school. At least, with present technology.
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty and several school board members were in the audience, and Ferrone was joined by Police Chiefs Mark DiCarlo of Morris Township and Pete Demnitz of Morristown.
Responding to parents, Demnitz said guns are rare in town and “we don’t have a real gang problem,” either. However, he declined to speculate on whether New Jersey’s strict gun laws will continue to spare the Garden State from mass carnage.
“The more you prepare, the less dread you will have in your life,” advised Demnitz, recommending a 2008 book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why.
Parents seemed pleased following the nearly two-hour session.
Christine Volinsky, who has two children in the District, said she appreciated administrators’ “multifaceted approach” to security.
“I feel so much better after this,” said Susie Brutosky, mother of a kindergartener. “It’s all about communication. This is the start of it.”
Morristown High School Principal Mark Manning promised a freshman that a similar presentation for students is coming. He cited snow days and other conflicts for delaying such an assembly.
MHS junior Katie Rosa told the audience she feels safe in school.
“I have true trust in everyone here, and you should, too,” she said, adding: “No, they didn’t pay me to say that. But I wish they did.”