Once again, we, as a nation, have been confronted by the unimaginable. The February 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, is the 18th school shooting since the start of 2018. As parents and community members, we ride a rollercoaster of emotions that leaves us feeling shocked and helpless. Many are outraged while wondering how something so horrific could happen again. Some are understandably afraid for the safety of their own children while others may feel the need to take action.

Author Pema Chodron writes, “Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” As we grieve for our Florida neighbors, our hearts break for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School community and we extend our love and prayers to the families, friends, and innocent lives lost in this senseless act of violence. For those of us who share their suffering, compassion—standing together, responding with love and action—becomes a shared responsibility.

As educators, we carry a heavy burden of responsibility to create and maintain safe and secure schools. In Robbinsville, we are steadfastly committed to creating safe and sacred places of learning. For us, this began with multi-faceted analysis followed closely by fortification of the physical and technological infrastructure. In 2013, the Board of Education conducted an independent security audit to assess the district’s safety level. The results provided an action plan which included development of new policies and standards to help ensure the safety and security of our buildings, grounds, personnel and students.
A cornerstone of the 2015 construction project allowed us to increase security in all of our buildings as well as to limit public access. This past year, we revisited the audit recommendations and made a financial commitment to upgrade our schools with additional technology that alerts both on-duty and off-duty troopers and other law enforcement officials if a dangerous situation arises. We continue to make security a priority with a commitment to additional resources in the 2018-2019 school budget.

Infrastructure alone is not enough to keep kids safe. Developing a culture of safety is a critical component and a top priority. This happens in a variety of ways. Robbinsville has a district security team that meets with law enforcement officials throughout the school year to review security needs and make recommendations for enhancements and resources to reduce risk. Additionally, each school has identified an internal security team consisting of staff members who have been trained to lead monthly security drills and analyze additional preventive measures. Establishing routines and common practices is an imperative that we take seriously.

This past spring, the Robbinsville Police Department along with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and Mercer County First Responders hosted an after-hours Mass Casualty Drill at Robbinsville High School. The drill simulated an active shooter scenario and was the district’s fourth large scale simulated drill. Additionally, in October 2017, our district hosted a Security Symposium for parents and community members with keynote speaker, Jeffrey Gale from the New Jersey Department of Education Office of School and School Planning Emergency Preparedness.

School security is a complex problem which requires multiple approaches to addressing the issue of safety. Security personnel and infrastructure may help reduce risk; however, we cannot overstate the importance of human resources. Specifically, we need all of our school personnel and the support of the full community to actively participate in keeping our schools and students safe.

In education, we recognize the value of developing safe and trusting relationships with our students. Research tells us that the success of learning depends on the strength of the teacher-student relationship. Educational professionals must come to know the minds and hearts of students in order to create a sense of belonging and interconnectedness. Really knowing their students helps our faculty to foster a sense of community while understanding the unique needs of each individual. Strong relationships allow staff members to identify students who are struggling, feel disconnected, or are at risk. On a related note, many years ago, the district and the township entered into a shared service agreement for a School Resource Officer. An integral part of our school community, Officer Ed Vincent has established meaningful and trusted relationships with students at all levels.
Our work calls for caring adults, both in and outside the schools, to be vigilant. If you as parent or community member see or overhear something concerning, whether in person or on social media, we ask that you notify the police or district officials immediately. Our strong partnership with the Robbinsville Police Department and other community organizations assist us in providing additional resources for addressing issues of mental health.

Recently, Hamilton Township Superintendent Scott Rocco shared a valuable resource from the National Association of School Psychologists for talking with children about acts of violence like those in Parkland. Visit their website at hamilton.k12.nj.us to access this informative article and feel free to share it with others.

As we uphold our commitment to do all that we can to care for our students and for our extended community, we encourage you to maintain hope and to continue to be present for our children and for each other.

Kathie Foster is superintendent of Robbinsville Schools.