SPARTA, NJ. – Gone are the days of simple fire drills. For students and staff across the country lock down and active shooter drills are the norm. Sparta will be adding a new drill, Reunification drill, according to Superintendent Michael Rossi and Police Chief Neil Spidaletto.
Rossi announced the reunification drill when going over a laundry list of security initiatives enacted in the district, at the board of education budget hearing earlier in the month.
“Sparta is fortunate to have the opportunity to do this drill,” Spidaletto said in an interview at Rossi’s office. The initiative is spearheaded by the Sussex County Prosecutors office and involves all of the public schools in the county, he said. “They would all like to be able to do this,” he said.
The drill would simulate the process of reuniting students with their parents in the event of a large scale emergency at the school. “It could be a shooting or another type of emergency,” Rossi said at the board of education meeting.
If such an even were to occur where Sparta school and police officials felt it would be necessary to get the students and staff off campus, they would be evacuated on school buses to Wallkill Valley Regional High School. Sparta parents would be instructed to go to Wallkill Valley to pick up their students. Each district in the county will have their own plan according to Spidaletto.
This process would help to alleviate congestion at the school and allow a more controlled environment to be sure students ended up with the correct adult. It would also get staff off campus.
For the drill Rossi said sports teams at the high school would play the role of the evacuated students. Athletic Director Steve Stoner will be selecting the specific teams, with an even mix of boys and girls.
Parents will know in advance their children are to be part of the drill, Rossi said. While some of the specifics will remain confidential these parents will be told the process of retrieving their students.
“Every school has a ‘go bag’ that is kept up to date with student information including a current photo and contact information,” Rossi said. If a parent cannot get to Wallkill Valley High School they will need to give permission to release the student to a surrogate. Typically, it would be an emergency contact, provided at the beginning of the school year according to Rossi.
For the drill Rossi and Spidaletto anticipate only “a couple of dozen” parents will participate, based on a similar drill already done with Lenape Valley Regional High School and the Sussex Technical High School.
Spidaletto said Sussex Tech had a smaller version of such an emergency when there was a bomb threat on campus. At that time they evacuated the school to While Lake Fields for reunification.
If it were an actual emergency, Rossi said he anticipated the “phone would be ringing off the hook,” at the board of education offices.
Law enforcement from around the county will be involved in Sparta’s exercise, including local police,fire departments, EMS, sheriff’s officers and the prosecutor as well as local Department of Public Works employees. Police have been evaluating potential road closures for the drill during the weeks leading up to the drill, Spidaletto said.
Following the drill, participating agencies will debrief, sharing details and lessons-learned, Spidaletto said.
In a similar way, the county superintendents will learn about Sparta and Wallkill Valley’s experience with the drill, likely at the monthly roundtable meetings, Rossi said.
Information about the Reunification process will likely be shared with parents, possibly at back to school night and possibly by the chief. Those items are still being discussed.
“With law enforcement all over the place, it will be a matter of following directions and protocol,” Spidaletto said.
Additionally, staff training for the evacuation and reunification process may be added to professional training given throughout the year by the district, Rossi said.
There was still a question about what role the school nurses would play; would they remain on the scene or evacuate with the students who might have health issues.
Spidaletto said Sparta would also like to be a part of a reunification drill as the receiving school to have the experience of both sides of the situation.
The partnership between the Sparta School District and Sparta Police Department has grown over the issue of security. With the addition of an SRO and six armed security guards being the most visible example.
Administrators were able to observe an active shooter drill that took place off hours at the Mohawk Avenue School. Spidaletto said there will be active shooter training with the school security guards, off school hours, before school ends.
“It was shocking,” Rossi said.
“Fortunately we are collectively staying on top of this issue and take school security extremely seriously,” Spidaletto said.
Several new security measures and processes have been added to the Sparta schools in the last two years. In addition to the armed security guards, all of the school have “man trap” vestibules with the lobby guard system that does an instant check of a visitor’s drivers license. Visitors must have an appointment to gain access to the school. Items to be dropped off are left in bins in the vestibules as well.
“The new plans have worked out really will with parents,” Rossi said.
The district has equipped the buildings with horns and strobe lights that connect to the alarm system, allowing an alarm to be heard outside the building and in the larger common areas of the schools. The district also has 270 cameras throughout the buildings and on school buses.
Through the police department the high school and middle school have been “geo mapped” with the remainder of the district schedule to be completed by August. This process, through the Critical Response Group or CRG generates maps and floorplans for use by law enforcement and first responders in the event of an issue in any area of the building.
This process allows for specific areas of the school to be identified, so a part of the building can be locked down and law enforcement effectively deployed while the rest is safely evacuated. The maps identify evacuation routes, assembly areas, traffic management and control points, positioning for command posts.
With any officer in the county having the capability to view maps of any school in the county, CRG allows all personnel involved with an emergency at a school campus to be working with the same information about the buildings for a more effective mutual aid response, according to the Chief.
Spidaletto said first responders have the App so they can locate the targeted area as well as make use of cameras in the building. The first responders in Sparta have had tactical training from Laurence Wilson formerly with the Australian Special Forces.
Wilson was on hand at the League of Municipalities meeting last Thursday at the Mohawk House where school security was on the agenda. Rossi and Spidaletto presented information about Sparta’s security initiatives to municipal, school and law enforcement representatives from throughout the county.
Attendees had a chance to use the FATS – “shoot or don’t shoot” simulator. In the program one of hundreds of active shooter scenarios is projected onto a screen with live actors playing the parts of victims and bad guys. The participant uses a gun to simulate firing, allowing law enforcement and even civilians to understand what it is like and how to act under those circumstances.
County law enforcement agencies will be training with Rescue Task Forces in how to respond to a mass casualty incident with the fire department and Emergency Medical Service personnel, according to Spidaletto.
The police also use a text alert system called Enforsys, allowing a “text blast” to go to anyone designated to receive the information. Currently the chief said Sparta Police Officers are receiving texts on any drills that are done throughout the Sparta School District. Rossi and designated school administrators also receive the texts.
“In case of an actual event, I need everyone to respond as quickly as possible,” Spidaletto said.
Sparta Police Officers are at almost every lock down and shelter in place drill in the schools, according to the chief.
Student and staff wellbeing is the focus of the safety and security initiatives. Their mental health is being addressed throughout the school district. A new Supervisor of Pupil Services will take on some of the programs formerly the responsibility of the Director of Guidance, including LEAD, character education, Digital citizenship as well as counseling.
Programs on vaping, illegal drugs and alcohol as well as social and emotional learning will continue to be infused into the classroom curriculum.
Security is not a static component of the school district, it is constantly updating and evolving. Rossi will be bringing in a group of former Navy Seals to do a security audit. The Special Forces Vulnerability Assessment is due to take place in June. According to Rossi the report will be presented to the public in October or November “depending on how long it takes them to write it.”