Community forum tackles complex issues involved in preventing school shootings

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Panic buttons in every classroom? Metal detectors in every school making it easier for police to confiscate weapons from someone mentally agitated?

Those were some of the suggestions as residents of Central Bergen County spent an evening looking for answers to the school shooting problem.

“It is a complicated issue and the solution is complicated. Is it a gun issue? Yes. Is it a mental health issue? Yes. Is it a funding issue? Yes,” said Dayna Orlak, president of the Waldwick Education Association.

Billed as a community forum, it was organized by Republican Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, who represents Bergen and Passaic Counties. On the panel were local police, school administrators and teachers. One thing they almost all agreed on was not to arm teachers.

“I don’t believe the option should be taken off the table completely,” said Republican Assemblyman Robert Auth.

Looking for answers is what they were doing. Do you tighten the visitor policy at a school? Do you ask the psychiatric profession to get more involved? Do you train school employees in the proper application of a tourniquet?

One thing the police chiefs all agreed on was the importance of SROs, school resource officers, usually an active or retired police officer assigned to a school.

“It has been invaluable. It’s a huge change. It puts reliable, seasoned, trained people in the school who know what they’re doing, who train with the police. They have to do everything that we do. They go through the same training that we do every year just like when they were police officers,” said Montvale Chief of Police Jeremy Abrams.

“Not only is the officer in the school on a daily basis, but they get to know the kids, they get to know the students, and it’s almost like the extra icing on the cake,” said Lt. Matthew McClutchy of the Westwood Police Department.

Police assured residents their schools are constantly being monitored. And of course they emphasized “see something, say something.”

“Of all the cases we hear of Columbine-type incidents that were thwarted, it was as a result usually of a student or family member speaking, telling somebody about it,” said Patrick Kissane, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Resource Officers.

“Most of this stuff starts is through this,” said Lt. Jay Hutchinson of the Westwood Police Department, referring to the cellphone in his hand. “If you see something, if your kid sees something, let us know.”

Throughout the evening, a woman sat with a photo of her son, who killed himself with a weapon his father left unlocked. It was not a school shooting, but it brought home the danger of allowing teenagers access to guns.

“Sixty-six days after he was ordered by a judge to lock up his weapon, my son went to his house, took his unlocked, unsecured weapon, the gun was not in the safe and he used it to shoot himself in the head, and my son is dead. His father doesn’t get in any trouble because New Jersey law states only parents of a 15-year-old or younger should be held accountable,” said Hillsdale resident Jennifer Gonzalez.

The woman who said “it’s complicated” got it right. The evening showed there are many aspects to school security. The consolation is that serious people are giving it serious thought.