HIGHTSTOWN: Police: School safety is top priority

HIGHTSTOWN: Police: School safety is top priority
By Amy Batista, Special Writer
Posted: Thursday, May 30, 2013 7:05 PM EDT
   HIGHTSTOWN — The safety of the school district’s pupils is a priority for the schools superintendent as well as the police director of Hightstown and the police chief of East Windsor.In interviews in the past several months, police and school officials reemphasized the priority of school safety in the wake of the shooting of pupils and teachers in Connecticut in Decemeber.

”We definitely increased our visibility,” Hightstown Police Director James LeTellier said in March.

According to Mr. LeTellier, the department did over 104 patrols in February.

”We are expanding our community policing,” Mr. LeTellier added.

”I have gotten nothing but positive feedback back from staff and the principal about the officers,” Mr. LeTellier said. “The younger kids have been asking to take pictures with the officers and asking them different types of questions so it’s very positive feedback.”

   Mr. LeTellier added that “it’s not increasing people’s taxes” for the extra security it is just “better utilizing our resources to accomplish things.”East Windsor Regional School District Superintendent of Schools Dr. Edward Forsthoffer agrees with the positive feedback that he is also hearing.

”I have not heard too much except for a few parents commenting favorably when seeing police in the vicinity,” said Dr. Forsthoffer in a March email.

   ”We are working with the schools to provide police presence throughout the school days,” Mr. LeTellier said in wake of continued gun violence within schools across the country.Hightstown police are working with the schools within district to enhance their current security procedures.

”We started this after Connecticut (shooting),” Mr. LeTellier said.

Dr. Forsthoffer reiterates there has always been a police presence.

”Actually, it has always existed because the school district has had a very positive and proactive relationship with both police forces,” Dr. Forsthoffer said in March.

Dr. Forsthoffer spoke with Mr. LeTellier and Chief James Monahan of the East Windsor Police Department after the Connecticut shootings and invited them to visit the schools when they are in the area, according to Dr. Forsthoffer.

   ”This could be as simple as driving by the school or coming into the parking lot,” Dr. Forsthoffer said. “He or she might also come into the building and say hello to the principal or walk down a hall or two and say hello to the students.”According to Dr. Forsthoffer, the elementary schools have between 500 and 700 students registered; Kreps Middle School has about 1,200 students; and Hightstown High School has about 1,450 students.

To Chief Monahan, school safety has always been a “high priority.”

   ”The East Windsor Police Department enjoys positive relationships with East Windsor school officials and we are pleased that our school zone enforcement strategy has been well received,” said Chief Monahan in a March email.”I believe it is a reasonable approach to providing reassurance while at the same time respecting normal daily school activities,” Chief Monahan said.

According to Walter C. Black Principal Heidi Franzo this is “really nothing new.”

”The officers are not patrolling the schools, rather visiting the school or grounds,” said Principal Franzo said in a March email. “By visiting the schools they are familiar with the building, structure and layout. They interact with faculty and students and both are more comfortable with their (visits) and presence.”

”The Police Department has conducted school zone enforcement assignments at each of the schools located within the township,” Chief Monahan said. “School zone enforcement involves the presence of a uniformed police officer on school property at a point during the school day.”

According to Dr. Forsthoffer, this “identified a couple of breaches” since the Connecticut incident and the district has “remedied” the issues.

   ”Drills are done by the schools so students and staff are prepared,” Dr. Forsthoffer said. “We conduct safety drills each month in every school.”According to a January presentation given by Anthony Bland from the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning to the state Department of Education, there are a number of drills that must be conducted a minimum of two times per year — active shooter, evacuation, bomb threat and lockdown.

The East Windsor Township Police Department coordinates periodic training within school district facilities to remain familiar with structures and operations. Specific training details are ordinarily not discussed publicly, according to Chief Monahan.

   Principal Robert Dias of the Perry L. Drew School said the police are there “immediately whenever we call.””They have a silent presence during our arrival and dismissal,” said Principal Dias. “During the day, they visit our site and check on how we are doing.”

Principal Silvana Zircher of the Ethel McKnight Elementary School agreed with other principals in the school district that there is a “positive and proactive relationship” with the local police department.

   ”The police are present at Ethel McKnight during our busiest times which are at arrival and dismissal,” said Principal Zircher.Homeland Security will be making random, unannounced visits in the near future according to a memo sent out earlier this year.

”Yes we are aware of the Homeland Security visits but we have not received one as of this time,” Dr. Forsthoffer said recently.

   Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf and Edward Dickson, director of the Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, sent a memo to school administrators in February regarding the “unannounced” visits.”As a state, we continue to work hard to prepare our school communities to respond to incidents that may put our students at risk,” said Commissioner Cerf in the memo.””

According to the memo, the state will conduct a small number of unannounced school visits by staff from the Department of Education and Homeland Security.

The visits have two goals: provide targeted support to individual schools and, share information learned with others across the state to support their collective effort, according to the memo.

”I met with the superintendent and the principal of the high school (Alix Arvizu) about several issues and addressed the concern for safety of the children and what we could do to help improve safety overall,” said Mr. LeTellier in March.

”The Hightstown Police Department and Hightstown High School/East Windsor Regional School District have enjoyed a very good working relationship throughout my seven-year tenure here,” said Principal Arvizu on April 1.

”Dr. Forsthoffer and I met with Director LeTellier and Lt. (Frank) Gendron on March 6 to discuss, among other topics, school security,” Principal Arvizu added.

According to Principal Arvizu, the officers stop at a security booth and then walk through the entire building.

”Frequently, patrol cars ride through the parking lots and the surrounding neighborhoods as well,” Principal Arvizu added. “It is comforting to know that every community resource available, from within the school and from without, is being employed to help to keep us all safe.”

According to Principal Arvizu, Principal LeTellier suggested having “police presence” on the high school campus.

”While we are a small department, we cannot commit a full-time officer as school resource officer,” Mr. LeTeller said. “I’ve worked out where each officer during their shift has to visit and patrol each of the schools.”

According to Mr. LeTellier, these patrols are “random” and occur at no designated times throughout the officers’ shift. The patrols can overlap and can also occur during any free time the officers may have.

Officers — two to four throughout the day are on shift — patrol the Hightstown High School, Walter C. Black and the Grace N. Rogers schools, including after-school activities. In addition to the patrols on duty, the detectives in unmarked cars will also monitor the schools as well as the special class officers, according to Mr. LeTellier.

”They visit not only with the administration and staff members but with the children,” Mr. LeTellier said.

”We are there to just add security to the school system and work with the administration to be a deterrent,” Mr. LeTellier said. “Our officers are trained to look for suspicious activities or anybody that sticks out and with the cooperation of the school staff, we can easily respond to a particular situation.”