2004-10-13 / Front Page
Schools react to terror scare
Plans being put in place to bolster security include ID card, cameras
BY LAYLI WHYTE
Rumson’s school officials are talking video cams, ID cards and lock-ups after last week’s revelation that information about Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School was on a CD recovered from the body of an Iraqi insurgent killed in Baghdad.
Dr. Gregg Hauser, interim superintendent of the Rumson school district, took over his new post on Monday of last week and had only been on the job for five days when this information was made public Friday by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office.
Hauser said Monday that the regional high school and borough school districts are taking steps to increase safety in the schools, including implementing a buzzer and security camera at the front doors of both Deane-Porter Primary and Forrestdale Middle schools, so that visitors will be screened before they are allowed into the building.
“As far as I am concerned and as far as the [Board of Education] is concerned, it’s a done deal,” said Hauser, adding that the next step is to go out to public bid for the system.
Besides the buzzer and camera system, the district is also discussing identification cards for faculty and staff; lock-up, meaning keeping all doors except the front door locked at all times and having doors open only from the inside; and improvements to the way the school district communicates with parents.
The district’s Crisis Response Booklet, which outlines what the schools are to do in the event of a crisis, is also being critiqued, he said, and changes made where necessary.
Hauser, in a telephone interview Monday, also confirmed that local, county and state police units were deployed to RFH High School and the Rumson elementary and middle schools on Sunday.
“They conducted a thorough, thorough search,” he said.
Bomb-sniffing dogs and the Rapid Response Team were part of the search for potentially harmful devices in the schools and on school grounds that could have been planted by terrorists.
The units sent to the schools included N.J. Task Force 1, Urban Search and Rescue Team (including structural engineers and planning specialists), N.J. State Police, K-9 units, Arson Bomb Unit, Technical Emergency and Mission Specialist (SWAT), OEM Regional Coordinator and NJSP Infrastructure Security Unit.
According to a press release from the Rumson Police Department, “The results of today’s activities supported the previous findings that the school buildings were found to be safe and secure for Rumson students and faculty.”
Although officials, including county Prosecutor John Kaye, hold that there is no immediate threat, the districts decided to take the security measures, Hauser said, to address the concerns of the parents who attended a town hall meeting at RFH on Friday.
Hauser said he met with his staff on Monday morning to review comments made at the meeting held to allay concerns that terrorists might have had their sights on RFH.
At the Friday meeting, at least 200 parents, students and teachers showed up to hear a team of local, county, state and federal law enforcement officials explain the truth about reports that information about the school, including floor plans, was on the CD recovered by U.S. forces in July.
Those assembled also took the opportunity to voice their concerns about how safe the schools are and to ask why parents were not informed of the situation earlier. The overflow crowd in the RFH gymnasium filled not only the bleachers but several rows of chairs, and some people were standing along the walls.
The meeting was called by the heads of both Rumson school districts, and speakers included Kaye and the Director of the state Office of Counter-Terrorism, Sidney J. Caspersen. Also in attendance were members of local law enforcement agencies, including Rumson Police Chief Edward A. Rumolo.
Kaye told those assembled that the information about the recovered CD had been classified as top secret by the U.S. Army and that he was only given the information in order to bolster security around the school.
He told those in attendance that it is believed that the Iraqi man retrieved the information about the Rumson schools on the Internet, which also led to the information about the other schools.
Kaye said that after the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., in 1998, local schools were asked to put floor plans online so that law enforcement officials could access them in case of a similar event. Now, schools are being asked to take that information off their Web sites, he said.
Many parents at the meeting on Friday complained about the districts’ failure to communicate the news from the Prosecutor’s Office that was rapidly disseminated by the media.
“The school never called,” said Fair Haven resident Mikki Brett, McCarter Avenue, a mother of two RFH students. “The kids are really spooked. We’re just here to see if they can tell us anything.”
Brett said that although Fair Haven’s reverse 911 call system did dial her house, she was only able to hear part of the message on her answering machine. She and her husband found out about the incident because one of his co-workers brought in a newspaper that carried the story.
“Our snow chain works faster than this did,” one concerned parent commented at the meeting.
Dr. Robert Smith, RFH superintendent, said that in addition to the reverse 911 call, e-mails were sent out informing parents of the situation and the time of the meeting. Students were also given handouts to bring home, stating that there was no threat to the school but that concerns would be addressed at the meeting.
The Bretts said they never received an e-mail from the school.
According to Caspersen, who spoke on Friday, the reason the public was informed last week was because the story had been leaked to the media.
Caspersen told those assembled at RFH that the CD had information about several schools, including two in New Jersey — Franklinville in Gloucester Country and Rumson-Fair Haven High schools — and two in California and one each in Michigan, Oregon, Georgia, and Florida.
At a press conference earlier that day, Kaye told reporters the CD was recovered from the body of an Iraqi physicist, the son of a member of the Ba’athist Party that deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein formerly controlled, and that the man’s father had a strong connection to the al-Qaida terrorist network.
The information pertaining to RFH did not include floor plans, but did contain information about the school’s vandalism and bullying policies, Caspersen said.
The CD also contained information about radon and depleted uranium, according to Kaye.
Both Kaye and Caspersen were adamant in making the point that the reason parents, teachers and students were not informed earlier was because there was no immediate threat to the school or to students. Caspersen repeatedly told the crowd that if there had been an immediate threat to the school, they would have been informed as soon as possible.
“I spend my whole waking, living day thinking about terrorism. In my world,” said Caspersen, “we do not take anything for granted. You would not be withheld information if there was a real threat.”
Kaye said that the county school superintendent also was not informed of the threat until the information had already been leaked.
It was not until Sept. 16, Kaye said, that he was informed about the CD. At the time, he said he believed there were floor plans for RFH on the CD, and it was not until recently that he found out the truth about the information from an FBI agent.
Caspersen said he was given the information on Sept. 4 and was told not to reveal it, just as he told Kaye in mid-September not to reveal it to anyone who did not need to know. Kaye told Smith only one week before the information was leaked to the media.
“Local law enforcement knew what I knew,” said Kaye.
Once Smith was given the information, extra security was put in place around the schools, Rumson police were placed around the school, and bomb-sniffing dogs were brought in to check the school and the construction site on the grounds for the new geo-thermal heating and cooling system being installed.
Caspersen said that the recent terrorist incident at a school in Beslan, Russia, in which 300 people were killed, half of them students, was the perfect cover for the increased security, since RFH, like the Russian school, has construction under way.
Both superintendents said Friday that they are confidant that the Rumson schools are secure and that there will be continued efforts to bolster security to keep them safe.