Newark officials gave conflicting explanations this week after two schools were evacuated, causing confusion and anger among parents already anxious about their children’s safety after this week’s deadly school shooting in Texas.
No one at either Newark school was in danger, officials said. Still, the mixed messages about the incidents call into question how schools communicate with families about safety issues at a time when officials say the district is on high alert due to “reported threats.”
In a statement provided to Chalkbeat on Thursday, Newark Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara said that police responded to calls about explosive devices at Park Elementary School and Technology High School on Tuesday morning, but found none. Police are continuing to investigate, O’Hara said.
School board member Josephine Garcia echoed that version of events. At a school board meeting Tuesday evening, she said there had been “a hoax bomb threat” earlier that day, prompting worried parents and community members to call her seeking information about the situation.
But at the same meeting, Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León flatly denied that the threats occurred.
“As it relates to bomb threats, if there would have been one we would have talked about it,” he said after Garcia mentioned the bomb threat. “It’s extremely important that we do not add to mass hysteria by saying there was a bomb threat in Newark when there wasn’t one.”
Yet at a board meeting on Thursday, district officials acknowledged that some schools did face threats this week.
Levi Holmes, the district’s safety and security director, told board members that some schools received messages meant to “cause hysteria and panic.” The threats were not credible, but his team and the police have identified a suspect and are working to “bring this person to justice,” Holmes said. He added that the district is creating a more efficient process for responding to threats.
León did not explain his Tuesday comments saying that there had been no bomb threats, but he said some information is limited to law enforcement and asked for families’ patience.
“People are worried about what has in fact occurred and we will constantly revisit our procedures, make changes, share those that we can, obviously, with the respective school communities,” he said.
A district spokesperson did not respond to emails asking how the district responded to the threats and what information was shared with families.
León’s initial comments Tuesday also did not square neatly with a message he sent to district families and employees Wednesday.
In the message, he offered condolences to residents of Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed in the school shooting Tuesday. León then said the Newark school district has been operating “at a heightened level of alert” in recent months due to “reported threats” nationally and in Newark, but did not provide details about the threats.
He added that the district reviewed the safety protocols at every school after the shooting in Texas, and said school safety is the district’s “top priority.”
Meanwhile, a Newark charter school received its own bomb threat on Wednesday, according to police. The school, People’s Prep, sent families a detailed email the same day explaining the situation and saying police had determined the threat was “non-credible.”
People’s Prep shares a building with Bard High School Early College Newark, which is part of the Newark school district. Rasheeda Walker, whose daughter is a sophomore at Bard, said neither the school nor the district informed her about Wednesday’s bomb threat even after her daughter observed a police bomb squad outside of the building.
At Park Elementary, Principal Sylvia Esteves told families in a brief email Tuesday that the school had “exercised an evacuation” and that all students and employees were safe. She did not say what caused the evacuation, but said families could call the school with questions.
At school dismissal Thursday, several Park parents said they were unsure what had triggered the evacuation. Some thought the school was just conducting a safety drill, while others heard there had been a bomb threat.
Already on edge after the Texas shooting, some parents said the uncertainty added to their unease.
“They need to let the parents know for sure what exactly is going on,” said Taina Rodriguez, whose daughter is in kindergarten at Park. “Don’t sit here and lie to us knowing that we already know what’s going on.”
Principal Esteves referred questions about the incident — including whether there had been a bomb threat — to the district. A district spokesperson did not respond to repeated emails Thursday seeking comment.
Board members say families should be kept informed
At Tuesday’s board meeting, Garcia left no doubt about what caused the evacuations.
“We know we had a hoax bomb threat in the city of Newark today,” she said, adding that she received a “massive” number of calls from parents and community members about the incident.
She also said the parents who called her were not aware that the district maintains a safety and security plan, which state rules require. Chalkbeat could not find the plan on the district’s website, and the spokesperson did not respond when asked where it is located.
“In lieu of what occurred today out in Texas, I think it’s just alarming and it’s something we need to explore,” Garcia said about families’ limited understanding of school safety protocols.
León responded that school staffers are aware of the procedures, and they will share them with parents during back-to-school events this fall.
Another board member, Vereliz Santana, suggested that the district post updates on social media informing families about safety concerns, including threats that are investigated and deemed not credible.
León rejected that idea, saying the district does not want to needlessly worry people by “crying wolf.” He also said schools must avoid tipping off families about safety drills, though no one at the meeting had suggested notifying families in advance of drills.
“People need to know that we can’t call you at your house and say, ‘Hi, we’re doing a drill in the school,’” he said. “We don’t publicize it to students because it’s a drill.”
A new law, which Gov. Phil Murphy signed in January, says school districts must provide written notification to families after every security drill. Schools are required each month to conduct a fire drill and a security drill, which are meant to prepare schools for active shooters, bomb threats, and other emergencies.
After the bomb scare at People’s Prep Charter School on Wednesday, officials sent a lengthy email to families explaining what happened.
Around 9:40 a.m., the school said it received a “suspicious email,” which it forwarded to police, the message to families said. The police determined the threat was “non-credible” and the building did not need to be evacuated. Officers then searched the inside and outside of the building and did not find anything suspicious. Meanwhile, staff members explained the situation to students and classes continued.
A People’s Prep spokesperson said the school notified Bard High School as soon as it received the threat. However, it’s not clear that Bard or the district relayed that information to students and parents.
Walker, the Bard high school parent, said no one explained to the Bard students what was happening, and that her daughter called her during the incident “distraught and hysterical” after seeing the bomb squad outside.
No one from Bard or the district called or emailed her about the incident, Walker added.
“I think the schools need to have more active communication,” she said. “The best way to get information is to get it from your kids and their friends, and that’s not right.”
Bard’s principal did not immediately respond to an email Thursday.
District spends millions on cameras, locks, metal detectors
The district has invested heavily in security upgrades over the past year.
It planned to spend $2.4 million of its second package of federal COVID aid on 5,000 security cameras, $2.1 million of a third aid package on additional security equipment, and $6.6 million of its 2022-23 school year operating budget on more cameras, walkie talkies, and magnetic door locks.
The district has also taken steps to prevent and prepare for shootings, according to school board documents. It has purchased additional metal detectors and installed panic buttons in schools to alert police of emergencies, which is required by a new state law enacted in 2019 after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
The Newark Police Department has also provided training for schools on how to conduct active shooter drills.
At Park Elementary School on Thursday, parents said they generally trust district and school employees to do everything they can to protect students. Still, they said, better communication would go a long way at a time when many parents can’t help but worry about their children’s safety.
“Anxiety is kicking in heavy,” said Sandra Casseus, whose son is in kindergarten at Park. “Let us know what’s going on because otherwise it makes us feel like our kids aren’t safe.”
Catherine Carrera contributed reporting.
Patrick Wall is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city and across New Jersey. Contact Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.