NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—School district officials refused to say if they ever notified parents about the June 9 evacuation and relocation of hundreds of McKinley School students, apparently due to a bomb threat.
On June 15, Board of Ed President Dale Caldwell refused to answer basic questions about two recent security incidents at McKinley Community School, saying he had received advice to stay silent from people who he declined to name.
“No comment. You’re familiar with that term? No comment,” Caldwell told New Brunswick Today, after giving extensive comments during a heated exchange on the telephone conference meeting.
Less than one week earlier, the community school had to be evacuated while police investigated a bomb threat. Children were escorted about 1,000 feet away where they were welcomed into the converted warehouse at 40 Van Dyke Avenue that is now home to the Lincoln Annex School and the P-Tech Academy
The following day, city police finally confirmed there was “a reported bomb threat” at the school, saying that detectives were “investigating the nature of the threat.”
“The school administration opted to evacuate the school as a precaution, the roads were closed to assist in the investigation and to facilitate moving the students and staff,” said JT Miller, the Deputy Director of the New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD).
But school district officials ignored questions about the incident altogether, leaving this reporter with one chance to get answers: the latest telephonic meeting of the Board of Education.
“The bomb threats in this age of terrorism, it seems weekly that there’s attacks in unlikely places, that, you know, this is treated like personnel issues,” said Caldwell, who had previously declined to answer a question from another member of the public on those grounds.
“And the more information that we make public, the more likely that things can happen again, so we will not comment at all about any activities of terrorism, violence, threats, you know, harassment, publicly.”
But the district did not issue an alert about the bomb threat or the evacuation on their Nixle emergency alert system, or through their mobile phone application. It’s unclear if any letter went out to parents about the incident.
New Brunswick Today has filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request with the school district for records of communications with the community about this and another disturbing incident.
Many parents learned about the bomb threat incident from New Brunswick Today’s Carlos Ramirez, who reported live from the scene during the lockdown and again as students and faculty returned to their school.
It’s unclear when the evacuation began, but New Brunswick Today was on the scene at 11:00am, at least a half hour after the evacuation. Students started returning to their school at 11:38am, according to Ramirez.
The students were then forced to shelter in place for over an hour, the second time in two months that an incident caused that kind of lockdown at McKinley and the converted warehouse building.
This reporter pressed on whether Caldwell was okay with not notifying parents about the evacuation as it played out.
“You don’t necessarily know if the parents were notified or not,” responded Caldwell, eventually lashing out at this reporter in retaliation for our questions.
“I’ll repeat again. We have been advised that no comments on security issues, we’re not going to make any public comments on security issues,” said Caldwell.
“You call yourself a reporter. So report what was said!” scolded Caldwell. “I’m not gonna allow you to do this… no one said to you that we are not going to notify parents, so if you are, in fact a reporter, get the words right!”
When asked who advised him to make no comments, he declined to name them.
“I happen to be involved nationally with a number of national as well as district issues, so multiple people have advised me, some with security clearances.”
Just days after students returned to school buildings for the first time in over a year, an afternoon shooting occurred while kids were in classes 1,000 feet away.
As we reported, a 29-year-old man from the Somerset section of Franklin Township was rushed the hospital after being shot in the leg while sitting inside a vehicle near the intersection of Van Dyke Avenue and Route 27.
The April 14 incident occurred at approximately 1:30pm, and emergency medical personnel were dispatched at 1:42pm, but it took nearly a half-hour before the schools went into a “shelter in place” at 1:58pm, according to Superintendent Johnson.
Johnson did not respond to follow-up questions about the timing, as we reported.
Previously in the June 15 Board of Education meeting, Caldwell had directed another member of the public to ask questions to the Superintendent instead of bringing them up in public.
But Superintendent Johnson did not respond to three emails requesting information about the evacuation situation, including two that Caldwell was copied on.
Caldwell has been far from an advocate for transparency in his time at a board member. Earlier in the meeting, he defended the board’s decision not to record their own meetings, saying, “It’s not required.”
And in an ugly incident from November 2017, Caldwell cornered and admonished this reporter, claiming that it was illegal to make a recording of him without his permission, shortly before one of his colleagues threatened physical violence.
Last year, the district quietly parted ways with Security Director Peter Mangarella, as we reported. He was replaced by John Soulias, who now refers all questions about security to the Superintendent.
Since then, the nine-member Board of Education has been resistant to comment on anything having to do with security or the position, and they’ve also made it harder for members of the public to speak at their meetings.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.