Rumors cause some SBHS parents to panic

Early reports about gun, misinformation fuel fear

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South Brunswick High School Principal Thomas Kietrys speaks at a news conference at the municipal building on Route 522 about a lockdown at the high school last week. Chief of Police Michael D. Paquette stands in the background.

SOUTH BRUNSWICK — Early reports and rumors fed the fires of fear during an incident at South Brunswick High School last week.

The school was locked down for about two and a half hours as police and school officials investigated a false report of a gun being brought to school last Thursday.

Although the report turned out to be a hoax, about 150 anxious parents, reacting to rumors and early media reports, flocked to the Crossroads Middle School on Major Road to demand answers from police and Board of Education officials.

"Some of the reports were saying that shots were fired at the school," South Brunswick Police Lt. Ron Schmalz, the department’s public information officer, said.

Schmalz said that the parents were calmed once they were updated on what was really going on at the high school.

Police ended the lockdown at 10:45 a.m. when they determined the threat to be a hoax, and the school returned to its normal full day schedule.

According to Schmalz, sketchy news reports early on during the incident, and word-of-mouth rumors, gave parents several different pictures of the incident, many of them inaccurate.

Reporters from several news organizations arrived on the scene shortly after the lockdown started at 8:15 a.m., and one radio station provided live updates on the situation, Schmalz said.

Reporters used information provided by students calling out of the building on cellular phones, or their parents, for their reports.

"It is like the game of telephone," Schmalz said during a news conference at the municipal building following the incident.

In the game, one person in a line tells the next person a story and each person relays it in turn. By the time you get to the last person, the story has changed, sometimes dramatically.

By the time the news conference was called, between 11 a.m. and noon, about 25 reporters from around the region had filled the main meeting room for the official briefing.

"Word does get out," high school Principal Thomas Kietrys said following the conference.

Kietrys said that school policy does not allow cellular phones or pagers to be used by students in the building, but that consequences are not severe for those students who continue to use them during school.

"We certainly won’t frisk anybody," he said, adding that the devices should be kept in students’ lockers.

Kietrys said that he hoped that the events of the day would show students the dangers of giving out misinformation.

"They need to be accurate in their communications," Kietrys said.

S.B. Library to host a

children’s tea March 18

All South Brunswick children in kindergarten through the sixth grade are invited to celebrate March at the South Brunswick Tea. This tea will take place on March 18 in the main meeting room at the Library, and will feature a story, crafts, game, food and special book displays.

Children in kindergarten through grade 2 may register for the 1-2:15 p.m. tea, children grades 3-6 are to attend the 3-4:15 p.m. tea.

A parent or other adult is to accompany younger children to provide help with the craft project.

The South Brunswick Tea is sponsored by the Friends of the Library. Registration is required for both these events. Space is limited. Please register in the children’s room or call the library at (732) 329-4000, ext. 285.

Children who are too young to attend the tea are invited to the regular story time at 11 a.m. on March 18.

S.B., N.B. only towns

with display policies

Majority of county

towns permit

holiday displays

SOUTH BRUNSWICK — Of the 25 municipalities in Middlesex County, only North and South Brunswick have formally adopted a policy regarding holiday displays.

According to a recent survey of towns, conducted by the Middlesex County Human Relations Commission last spring, the policies in these two towns resulted from objections to previous practices.

"The results were to give other towns an idea of what was being done," commission Co-chairman Robert Stone said, adding that the commission did not plan for the survey to be made public.

While South Brunswick banned all displays in 1998, North Brunswick established a resolution creating a Diversity Display Committee composed of clergy, and interested community residents.

That committee is now included in the North Brunswick Human Relations Council, according to the survey.

The township reported that it has dedicated a piece of land next to the municipal building as an area for displays approved by the committee to be placed.

The site, the survey reports, contains a plaque that reads: "This site has been designated by the Township of North Brunswick to encourage resident communities to erect seasonal displays that, taken together, celebrate the diverse, multicultural nature of our community."

Township officials said that they believe this site meets the standards of the U.S. Constitution.

The survey of the towns revealed that the majority have been able to have a display during the season, but do not have a formal policy in place.

According to the survey, 18 towns have some kind of display, and six of the municipalities reported no observances during the winter holiday season.

Cranbury did not respond to the survey.

Plainsboro officials reported that they have no formal observation, but that municipal employees decorate a Christmas tree, and display a menorah in the lobby of the municipal building.

Nine towns display both a Christmas tree and menorah, according to the survey.

South Brunswick’s decision to eliminate any displays on municipal property in 1998 followed a complaint the previous year about the display of a Christmas tree and menorah at Woodlot Park on New Road, according to the survey.

None of the communities surveyed reported being involved in litigation from the displays.

Holiday displays will remain banned in S.B.

Council votes down holiday displays 3-2

SOUTH BRUNSWICK — After weeks of passionate debate, the Township Council rejected a resolution that would allow religious displays on municipal property.

The Tuesday night vote followed weeks of passionate debate among the five council members, as well as members of the community.

Deputy Mayor Frank Gambatese and Councilwoman Carol Barrett joined lone Republican Councilman Ted Van Hessen in opposing the resolution.

Barrett and Gambatese both read prepared statements explaining their change of position.

Barrett said she decided that having the displays without offending any of the residents was not possible.

"I originally wanted decorations," Barrett said, but "if I find an issue is divisive, especially on an issue that is supposed to bring happiness, then I must vote against holiday displays."

Gambatese said that he has struggled with the issue, and that most of the people he has talked with were neutral.

"They wonder what all the fuss is about," Gambatese said.

Gambatese said that he was saddened by the local clergy.

"I have learned from most of our religious leaders that they are more concerned about divisiveness than about teaching respect and tolerance. That saddens me deeply," Gambatese said.

Gambatese concluded by saying that he would vote no on the resolution because of his "desire to avoid a Pandora’s box of legal entanglements."

Mayor Debra Johnson and Councilman Edmund Luciano voted to permit the displays.

"I’m not sure how this became a religious issue," Johnson said, adding that she was concerned about "what we will lose" in defeating the displays.

According to Johnson, such township events as the Haunted Halloween trail and the annual Kwanzaa celebration may be threatened by the policy.

Township Attorney Bertram Busch said that the resolution’s defeat leaves the secular display policy set late last year in place.

The council decided to look at the issue after it received a petition from 60 seniors at the township’s Senior Center asking to have a holiday tree last December.

Such displays have been banned in the township since 1998.

The township decided to ban the displays following a federal court’s ruling that such displays were unconstitutional.

A different panel of that same Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision last year, upholding a diversity display in Jersey City.

Members of the local clergy and the township’s Human Relations Commission both feel that the displays should not be allowed on public property, but should be left to individuals and businesses to erect.

In response to the seniors’ petition, the council voted to overturn the ban in December allowing secular winter displays, including snowflakes, candy canes and snowmen.

Council vowed at that time to look at the issue again.

Council members strongly debated the new resolution during a February work session, but put off a vote during the next regular meeting.

At that meeting, Barrett and Gambatese said that they favored the resolution, but promised that they would study it prior to voting.

Van Hessen said that he used to favor such displays, but had changed his mind on the issue.

A majority of residents speaking during the public session asked the council to vote the resolution down.

Human relations Committee member Martin Abschutz reported that the commission is still opposed to allowing the displays.

"We don’t want South Brunswick to be another case to come before the courts," Abschutz said.

Abschutz said the commission feels that individuals should be the ones to erect any displays and that the churches should be open for people to become educated in different religious cultures.

"Government does not have to do it for us," he said.

Gwen Southgate said that any kind of display would create a crack in the separation of church and state.

"It is a slippery slope," Southgate said, adding that she found the discussion "really scary" on how the wall representing the separation between church and state is eroding.

"We are sliding very rapidly toward a de facto religion," she said.

Speaking for the resolution, resident Paul Kessler said that the seniors who initially signed a petition to request that the council allow holiday decorations at the Senior Center did so because it was the first time they were prohibited from having a display.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Kessler presented a second petition with 128 names in support of allowing a decorated tree at the center.

"We request that our annual holiday tree and trimmings be returned," he said.

Kessler said that the petition had signatures from a diverse group of people and that the center was decorated during many different holidays representing a diverse population.

"There was no culture cut out," he said.

N.B. board examines

2000-2001 calendar

Elko chats with Clinton

during San Francisco

conference trip

NORTH BRUNSWICK — It may only be March but that did not stop the Board of Education from looking at next year’s school calendar Tuesday.

At the workshop meeting, Superintendent of Schools Alan Elko told the board it did not have to decide on 2000-01 calendar then, but could act on it in April.

The one area of the school year that generated some discussion was the week of Election Day in November.

Since Election Day and the New Jersey Education Association’s Conference in Atlantic City fall on the same week, it could make for a "disruptive week," according to Elko.

He said that since this year is a national election, most schools will be closed on that Tuesday.

In addition, all schools are closed Thursday and Friday of that week due to the convention, so Monday and Wednesday would be the only days for school instruction.

Elko explained that some districts will be closing for the entire week.

"It’s a problem for any (district) school calendar," he said.

Board member Craig Rosevear said an alternative would be to keep schools open on Tuesday so students could go from Monday to Wednesday.

He stated that closing schools on Election Day has been a recent development.

Elko stressed, however, that the two concerns if schools are open that day would be the higher percentage of people voting in a general election and the heightened security issue.

The two drafts have differing versions of the spring recess.

The original proposed draft noted that schools would be closed April 12-13 and 16-20.

In the revised proposed draft, schools would be closed April 9-16.

During the administrative report, Elko informed the audience that he took part in the National Conference for School Superintendents in San Francisco late last week.

He said that he participated in a discussion with graduate students at Stanford University.

But the highlight of Elko’s trip was meeting President Bill Clinton.

It was not something that was planned, however. It happened by chance.

Elko said that after a cable car ride, he and his wife were walking along Fisherman’s Wharf when they came upon several policemen.

Elko asked another stranger who was dressed in a suit what was going on, and the man said that Clinton was eating in a nearby restaurant.

Elko should have known, he said, because there were limousines with flags and men wearing ear pieces.

Elko and his wife decided to wait in line to meet Clinton when he came out of the restaurant. Elko explained that a staff member used a wand to check the people for any weapons and even scanned every loaf of bread that was to be brought into the restaurant.

As Clinton came out, Elko’s wife had a sketch that she wanted the president to sign; however, a staff member reprimanded her, according to Elko.

When Elko’s wife shook Clinton’s hand, she told him that she was a supporter of gun control and wanted to see an end to school violence.

Elko said that she ‘pushed the right button’ and Clinton stopped and talked to Elko and his wife for about five minutes, even becoming emotional when talking about the 6-year-old girl who had recently been killed in a Michigan elementary school.

When Clinton was heading for the limo, he signed the sketch that Elko’s wife had brought.

After Elko’s anecdote, board members peppered him with questions such as, "Did you invite him (Clinton) to North Brunswick?" and "Did you tell him who you were?"

Elko said that he just let Clinton do most of the talking.

"You don’t interrupt the President when he’s on a roll," he said.

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IN CONCERT — Bryan Jenner, a music teacher at Linwood Middle School and conductor and musical director of the Greater Middlesex County Band, addresses the audience at a band performance on Friday at the school.