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Sussex County Superintendents Speak Out About The Newtown Tragedy

Jennifer Jean Miller

Tuesday, December 18, 2012 • 10:22pm

 

SUSSEX COUNTY, NJ – In light of the tragedy that happened in Newtown, Conn., Sussex County students, parents, teachers, and school administration, have especially had concerns and been on high alert. Their hearts have gone out to the victims, and, at the same time, all parties have explored their own schools, and how to to further protect Sussex County schools.
 
The Alternative Press reached out to five superintendents in municipalities across the county for comment: Dr. G. Kennedy Greene, Superintendent for the Newton Public Schools; Mr. Peter Merluzzi, Andover Regional School District Interim Superintendent; Dr. Charles Maranzano, Hopatcong Borough Schools Superintendent; Sparta Township School District Mr. Dennis Tobin; and Vernon Township School District Superintendent Dr. John Alfieri.
 
During the superintendents’ first day back after the weekend, The Alternative Press found all of them in meetings, and was able to speak to three of the five personally. All of them were faced with great difficulties throughout the day, and schedules packed with faculty meetings, and those with other school and non-school personnel, who are working with the schools to double check security. They spent time as well providing help to students as well, who are facing concerns and questions about the tragedy. Some have addressed issues on the school websites, and others like Hopatcong, have already put the topic on the agenda at their board of education meeting this week.
 
“As a father, I can’t even put this into words, it’s so horrific,” said Alfieri.
 
The Vernon Township School District was the first The Alternative Press found, to have put up a statement on the Internet with resources for its students, and their parents. Alfieri posted his “Superintendent’s Blog,” with a special post about “Safety and Security within the Vernon Schools.” Click here to view. 
 
Over the weekend, Alfieri iterated to readers of his blog, and has spent his time on the phone, and via email reiterating, that, "VTSD has the most complete and comprehensive safety and security plans of any of my former districts combined. This is not just ‘lip service' meant to appease you; this is 100% a statement of fact.”
 
Alfieri said the school participates in monthly drills, has a security camera system unlike any usual in non-urban schools, and replaced all front doors in the secondary schools.  The school district also has a director of safety and security, Mr. James Barta, which Alfieri said is uncommon as well for a non-urban school district, and he had been put in place for a strong random drug-testing program the district has.
 
“We’re very fortunate to have him,” said Alfieri of Barta. “Today’s a very busy day for him.” 
 
Barta spent the day reviewing plans, and the school also has a school resource officer, Jason Haw, and, has a strong working relationship with the Vernon Township Police Department.
 
“We have very good plans in place, but there’s room for improvement,” Alfieri said. “We’ll be reviewing our safety plans over this week.”
 
Alfieri did note the Sandy Hook Elementary School did have the “right personnel and plans,” and lives were saved because of the quick thinking of some administrators, as well as faculty, who some lost their lives in saving their students.
 
“If it can happen to them, it can happen anywhere,” said Alfieri.
 
Joe Lazar, an advertiser in Vernon with The Alternative Press, as well as a parent in Vernon Township, wrote an email to Alfieri, copying The Alternative Press. He said he had read Alfieri’s blog.
 
“I appreciate the passion and dedication of all the teachers and administrators in this effort, however, I am convinced what is being done is not enough,” said Lazar.
 
Lazar shared his concerns with how he felt someone like Adam Lanza could enter the school. Lazar suggested two police officers and a police car on sight during all school hours. Alfieri offered to speak to Lazar personally, and spent his day doing so with other parents like Lazar.
 
He said the schools have stepped up entry procedures for the school.
 
At the same time he said, “You don’t want to come back with such vigilance in a week. We want to do something that sticks.”
 
Another equally main concern has been the emotional well being of the faculty, staff, and students.
 
“Our staff is drawing parallels between our community and Newtown,” Alfieri said. “Our sense of safety is being called into question.” 
 
The senselessness of the act as well, has left all involved, including students, reeling with concern and confusion, over “the senselessness of the act.”
 
Counselors have been in place to help the students, and, the school has also been providing support to faculty.
 
“Kids are grieving, scared, sad,” Alfieri said. “We want to be sure we answer questions for them.”
 
Alfieri said when he was a teacher, the safety drills were not commonplace, and, now he hears his own children come home and tell him when safety drills have taken place in school. He said it has given an indication of the changes going on in this world.
 
“You can’t be in a school district, and not have this be on your mind wherever you are,” Alfieri said.
 
He has provided resources for parents on his blog about how to speak to their children about the difficulties following the shooting, and, will continue to keep the blog and website updated.
 
Greene said about the Newton Public Schools, "Newton feels like we have a lot of measures in place."
 
On Monday, parents saw Greene out front, as they dropped their children off to the Merriam Avenue Elementary School. Greene made his rounds to speak with administrators at all schools in the district.
 
On Monday evening, parents were notified of a meeting at the Merriam Avenue School Library on Tuesday morning, teaching parents how to cope with crisis and school safety.
 
A typical sight already at Merriam Avenue Elementary, is Newton Police Officers stationed at the school in the morning, and afternoons.
 
However, Newton will continue to practice security, including drills with security responders. 
 
The administration is striving to return things to a sense of normalcy, and if there are students with issues, counselors will be on hand to discuss things with them.
 
At the high school on Monday, students held a moment of silence.
 
Newton's website also has advice for parents on speaking to their children about the tragedy. 
 
The school already has a philosophy and program in place, "TRS," which stands for "Trust Respect Support." Greene said it is the district's approach to character education. 
 
"As much concern goes into academic growth, we are concerned where they [students] are emotionally," Greene said.
 
Merluzzi shared his reflections about the tragedy.
 
"As adults, it's hard to understand it," he said.
 
"Our kids are doing pretty well," Merluzzi added.
 
On Monday, about 16 students at the Long Pond School requested to speak with counselors, and there were two group sessions that gathered. 
 
Students were concerned mainly as to the "why's," behind the tragedy, and their upset with what happened to the victims. They were also worried if a similar situation could happen at their school.
 
Merluzzi met with faculty, and has meetings with the police department to review security plans, meetings that will continue through the rest of the week.
 
The schools will attempt to return to a sense of normalcy, and for students who need it, counseling with continue to be provided.
 
"We spent the whole weekend watching this [the tragedy]," said Merluzzi. As adults, we're having difficulties. There aren't answers. We tell students just because we're adults, doesn't mean we won't have all the answers. It's not something you hear, deal with, and put away."
 
 
 
 
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