Caution and anxiety are fresh in Bayonne after the country was again shaken by a mass shooting. Soon after the Feb. 14 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, students and administrators began organizing the district’s participation in “National School Walkout” on March 14 on Avenue A. The demonstration calls for students, parents, and faculty to walk out of school for 17 minutes — one minute for each person killed in the Feb. 14 school shooting. Meanwhile, students are talking about protesting in Washington D.C. and other cities on March 24 to pressure federal lawmakers on gun control. Students and activists are calling the event “March for Our Lives.” Last week, thousands of students in Florida, D.C. and other cities walked out in similar protest.
On Friday, Bayonne High School went on lockdown after a message circulated through social media threatening a school shooting at “BHS,” an acronym for the New Mexico high school, Belan High School that was confused with Bayonne. Later in the day, police were called to Henry E. Harris Community School after a parent reported her child telling her that another student said a shooting would take place at the school. Police quickly determined the threat not credible. Many districts in the state and country experienced similar security scares.
View from inside
No segment of the population may be more concerned, or aware of the risk, than high school students. They are the first generation of students born after the 1998 Columbine Massacre, and the first to come of age with the internet. Shootings have become a media theme. After one occurs, constant coverage continues for a day or two. Shooters then become memes, circulated, cropped, and edited at the speed of light, like the “BHS” Snapchat message that originated from a male sophomore student in Belan High School in New Mexico.
Snapchat, the most popular social media platform among high school students, is designed to delete communications within a short period of time. Thus, the only way to save a message is to take a screenshot. Information is therefore difficult to confirm.
The Snapchat message received by the Belan High School student was an image of a phone screenshot of another screenshot of the original message. Each degree of separation greatly reduces users’ ability to verify sources and accuracy. By the time the truth is verified, schools and communities are already disrupted.
“All BHS students prepare to see my wrath tomorrow,” read a blurry Snapchat message, which is also laced with emojis. “I’m going to be the next to go down in history you SCUMS… All you guys made fun of me and laugh at me now it’s my turn for revenge and it’s finally here. Beware my AR-15 will be in my duffle bag.”
BHS students speak their minds
On Wednesday, Feb. 21, a Bayonne High School senior said, “I want to make sure I’m safe, everyone is safe, and no one dies.”
A BHS sophomore did not feel safe. “I feel like if someone really wanted to get a gun in, they can get bring one in easily,” the student said.
“We need more security,” added a freshman.
“I think we should just get rid of guns. They should only be used for war,” said another BHS student.
“You can’t get rid of all the guns. It’s in the Constitution,” a junior pointed out. “But I think guns that can be modified to be automatic shouldn’t be allowed.”
The students said they looked forward to the March 14 “National School Walkout,” noting that a show of force from high school students is necessary to push lawmakers to take action.
“A lot of people are going to keep on [committing mass shootings] until students say something,” said a Bayonne High School senior.
Many students who are against the sale of automatic weapons are in agreement with political leadership in NJ, one of seven states and the District of Columbia that have laws banning assault weapons.
“I really believe that taking NJ laws and turning them federal would help with the problem,” said Mayor James Davis. “In a lot of these states, it’s just too easy to buy guns. You can get them in department stores.”
“I want to make sure I’m safe, everyone is safe, and no one dies.” – Bayonne High School senior
The local response
When a perceived threat arises, local leaders respond. Interim Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael A. Wanko and Mayor Davis have both expressed support for a policy that would hire retired police officers armed with a concealed weapon to work in every public Bayonne school, but those policy shifts are still under discussion.
The school district announced this week a new policy called “Park and Walk,” whereby a police officer will, every day, park conspicuously in front of one of Bayonne’s 12 schools and walk through the building.
“The problem is that schools are soft targets,” Wanko said. “We’re going to make the schools harder targets.”
The school district is also planning upgrades to its surveillance technology to allow for better quality live feeds for security and school officials to monitor school activity.
In a press release, mayoral candidate Jason O’Donnell proposed that every school have a fulltime police officer inside the building.
“Unfortunately, there continues to be no action taken by our ‘leaders’ in Washington,” he said. “The feelings of powerlessness and rage at the lack of meaningful action on the part of those tasked with protecting our children in our schools are real and they strike at every parent’s very core,” said O’Donnell, whose wife is a Bayonne teacher.
Educators weigh in
The NJ Education Association said last week that arming teachers with guns would not create safer schools, but rather turn them into “armed fortresses of fear,” Reports Adam Clark for the Star Ledger.
NJEA President Marie Blistan said that teachers “cannot shoot their way to safety.”
“For years, the United States has suffered under levels of gun violence unknown almost anywhere else in the world,” Blistan told the Star Ledger. “We must reject the failed ideology of guns as a solution when, in truth, they are the problem.”
Meanwhile, teachers are calling for divestment of the state pension fund from gun and ammunitions manufacturers, according to NJ Spotlight, and state lawmakers introduced a bill last Thursday proposing NJ stop investing in those companies.
Emergency responders weigh in
Emergency responders in Hudson County, meanwhile, are coordinating to better prepare schools to treat shooting victims at the point of injury and while the shooter is still active, according to Michael McCabe, Chief of Operations at McCabe Ambulance Service in Bayonne.
In the last year, McCabe has held drills to send paramedics into active shooter situations, dressed in bullet-proof vests and helmets and flanked by armed officers, to find the injured, apply tourniquets, and evacuate them to the point of wounded care. This method is called Rescue Task Force (RTF), which currently functions in six Hudson County municipalities including Bayonne.
He says that many fatalities are due to loss of blood during the critical initial minutes of the injury, when most people capable of helping are hiding for their own safety.
“We realize that lives are lost within minutes,” said McCabe. “At this point, everyone has come to the realization that this is a threat that’s not going away. There has to be some sort of mechanism to respond to these incidents to increase survivability.”
McCabe said the task forces are cross-disciplinary, and include paramedics, police, firefighters, teachers, administrators, parents, and one day, possibly, students.
“You need everyone to be prepared in these situations,” said McCabe, who said his goal is ultimately to help educate the public by bridging the gap between “what the civilian base understands and what they should expect.”
McCabe said, “I have four kids, and it’s very real to me. My oldest child approached me the other night and said she’s nervous. Your kid should never feel unsafe at school.”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.