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Safety and Security In Princeton Schools Are Top Priorities

Becky Melvin

As part of a move toward greater emphasis on school safety and security, Princeton Regional School District administrators have written and updated a manual of emergency planning for staff and taken a series of steps, including such details as outfitting each classroom with a heavy-duty flashlight.

The district's shift toward increased emergency planning began two-and-a-half or three years ago, prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, said Jeffrey Graber, assistant superintendent of Princeton Regional Schools.

The impetus was a document of emergency protocols put together by Hamilton Township Public Schools. Princeton district administrators discovered the document, thought it was good, and wanted to replicate it, Dr. Graber said.

"It was actually a flip chart for staff, and we have taken that and used it as a model," he said. "We've been working on it for a couple of years and updated it three times."

But that was just the beginning. Since September 11 and the anthrax attacks of 2001, a buildup of policies and procedures for emergency planning has taken place not just in Princeton, but across the nation, often starting at the state and federal levels.

Approximately 691 New Jersey residents died on September 11, 2001 – more than one-quarter of the total number of people who lost their lives in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. that day, according to Gov. James E. McGreevey's office.

An important result of the wave of emergency planning initiatives is that Princeton schools re-established and beefed up communication and coordination with local emergency personnel like the police and fire departments and hospitals, Dr. Graber said.

"I'd like to take the opportunity to give credit where credit is due, and thank the people who have helped us develop school emergency operating plans," said Dr. Graber.

The assistant superintendent referred to Ted Cashel, Princeton Township fire official and emergency preparedness director; Robert Buchanan, a Princeton Township Police lieutenant; and Dennis McManimon, Princeton Borough Police lieutenant, among others.

Close Relationship

The closer working relationship with local emergency management officials includes training for school staff.

Aspects of new teacher training include information related to accidents and medical emergencies, emergency procedures for events including natural disasters, instruction on the district's emergency plan, including chain of command, emergency telephone numbers, and protocols for such things as "suspicious male."

"The plan emphasizes a close working relationship with the emergency management officials in the Borough and Township," Dr. Graber said. "We are not the experts. We work consistently with individuals who have been trained in this."

As for the district's manual, changes in some of the topics this year were made in response to current information from the Mercer County superintendent of schools, the state department of education, and the governor's office, and the manual is now color coded, Dr. Graber said. "Staff are asked to discard old copies as new ones are available," he said.

Safety and Security

The district also keeps safety and security a top priority by making presentations to faculty on in-service days and by sending building principals and other administrators to state seminars on emergency management and preparedness.

Last spring, with the beginning of the war with Iraq and a terrorism threat level at code orange, the district again re-examined and updated emergency preparedness.

At that time, District Superintendent Claire Sheff Kohn wrote a letter to parents that discussed emergency planning and protocols implemented after September 11. The letter, posted on the district's website, also presented some guidelines for talking with students about the implications of war and included a link to Crisis Management Institute (CMI), which has guidelines for parents, teachers, and administrators related to preparing for emergencies.

The old saying, "You don't teach navigation in the eye of the storm," is a good one to apply to emergency management, the CMI website states. (Dr. Kohn's letter remains posted on the district's website today.)

"If, God forbid, another 9-11 were to happen, the district would follow the directions of emergency management personnel. It would depend on A, the situation, and B, the directions of state and local officials," Dr. Graber said.

He declined to reveal specifics of the plans or methods of communications. But he did say, "We have communications beyond telephones" with each teacher and classroom.

While much emergency planning is dictated at the state level, not all of it is. On the official site of the state of New Jersey, it says that for districts that may be located in a community where a "Threat Level Red" alert is implemented, local superintendents and local emergency management officials will decide the best course of action to ensure that children are protected.

It goes on to say that in extreme cases, this may mean a lockdown of the school for the children's protection. But it could also mean only that schools may implement early dismissal plans and send students home.

The website also states that parents need to feel confident in their district's emergency plans, and should, therefore, ask questions of their schools, their local police and local governments, especially as it relates to "Threat Level Red."

Parents should also make sure they are familiar with individual school plans and make sure their emergency contact information is up-to-date, it says.

Dr. Graber said, "The level of consciousness over security after Columbine and 9-11 means that now more than ever security measures are in place to enable each building principal to insure the safety of all children and staff."

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