It was the emergency that didn’t happen, as Highland Park parents became alarmed over a nonexistent lockdown situation in local schools.
The situation began to unfold across the Raritan River, when New Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Richard Kaplan ordered a district-wide lockout in response to an unspecified investigation by the New Brunswick Police Department. The lockout affected all schools in the urban district, including Noah’s Ark of Highland Park, because it houses New Brunswick preschoolers.
“In essence there was one school in Highland Park that went to lockout,” said Lt. Thomas Hammill of the Highland Park Police Department.
At 10:53 a.m. Wednesday a parent of a Noah’s Ark preschooler received a text message on her phone from the preschool saying parents should not visit the school or try to call it.
“The New Brunswick district and Noah’s Ark is under lock down,” stated the text message. “At this time no one will be permitted in or out of the school at this time.”
The situation described in the text message technically was not a lockdown, but a lockout. In a lockdown, students and staff hide in silence in locked classrooms with the lights out, to hinder an assumed intruder from finding them. In a lockout situation, school instruction continues as normal, but no one is allowed to enter or to leave the building.
Schools may order lockouts if the police believe there to be a risk of an intruder coming to the building. A statement from Mr. Kaplan’s office cites only an “active police investigation” at the time.
The text stated that everyone was fine, but the parent receiving the message was concerned and at 10:54 a.m. went on Facebook to ask if anyone in the Highland Park Parents Group knew the reason for the lockdown.
Alarmed comments began piling up: “What??” “What???” “OMG”
At 11 a.m. an understandably worried parent contacted The Planet to find out what was going on. Reports of a district-wide lockdown came as a surprise to police as well.
“If there is something going on, we should know,” said Lt. Thomas Hammill, who dispatched squad cars to each of the district’s schools to make sure everything was fine.
Aside from the inquiry by The Planet, Lt. Hammill said the department fielded calls from council members concerned by the swirling rumors. Despite the precaution of dispatching police cars following The Planet’s inquiry, the police response was muted, in large part because there were not enough calls to make it show on the department’s radar. “We don’t have the resources to commit to” monitoring speculation that shows up on social media, noted Lt. Hammill.
Had there been an actual emergency, there are a number of procedures for the department to follow. In extreme situations, the department would hand the situation over to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, which would decide how to notify the public.
The municipality has tools at its disposal, such as the borough web site and Facebook page, the reverse 9-1-1 system and its Nixle system for contacting residents. Nixle, a private U.S. communications corporation, provides emergency communications services to municipalities – allowing government agencies to send messages to local residents via phone, email and the web.
“We have to find a way to communicate,” said Councilwoman Elsie Foster-Dublin. “If there were a severe panic, we would do it whatever we needed to do to communicate accurate and timely information.”