A former student’s unauthorized appearance in the building library last week has district officials re-evaluating security plans.
By Matt Skoufalos | November 16, 2021
Collingswood school district officials are working to uncover the circumstances that led to an unauthorized person gaining access to the borough high school, forcing a shelter-in-place lockdown and campus-wide search for the culprit.
On Wednesday, November 3, Collingswood High School (CHS) students reported encountering “a young person unfamiliar to them; an intruder,” in the school library sometime after lunch, said Superintendent Fredrick McDowell.
That person told the students that he’d gained entry to the building to conduct “a social experiment” for his YouTube channel that would determine how long it would take anyone to notice him there, McDowell said.
Shortly after that interaction, those students reported the incident to building officials, triggering a shelter-in-place lockdown and a room-by-room sweep for the person they’d described.
“We believe the young man was hiding in the bathroom during class, which allowed him to hide out for a couple of hours,” McDowell said. “Once they went to shelter-in-place, the young man ran and exited the building.”
Through subsequent investigation, McDowell said the intruder was identified as a 17-year-old former Collingswood High School student who had been disenrolled from the district two years ago after moving out of town. The superintendent believes the former student was admitted into the building through a side door that had been opened by someone who recognized him.
“In many cases, young people that do not have a real connection to the school community sometimes demonstrate less than desirable behavior,” McDowell said.
“That young man’s information has been passed on to Collingswood Police,” he said. “We will be issuing a trespass order so that the person does not step on campus again.”
McDowell described the situation as “an isolated incident,” and praised the students who alerted administrators about the trespasser. He also pointed out that the district security protocols functioned as intended after they were enacted.
“We are very fortunate that there were no incidents of injury, other than the anxiety of there being an intruder in the building at that time,” McDowell said. “Our students were the ones who said something doesn’t smell right. As soon as it was reported, the safety protocols went into effect, and the individual exited the building.”
While acknowledging that the incident is “very weird,” the superintendent said it was also difficult to anticipate given the age of the alleged trespasser and the volume of students in the building.
“A 17-year-old walking through campus is not uncommon,” McDowell said.
“During hallway transitions, you’ve got thousands of students in the hallways.
Nonetheless, he said the district is working with Collingswood police to revisit its security policies, and avoid a repeat of the situation.
Presently, students arriving at the building must present valid IDs and clear novel coronavirus (COVID-19) screening protocols before being admitted.
“The school leadership team at the high school meets and greets every student,” McDowell said. “We are still waiting to see what went wrong.”
Collingswood Police Chief Kevin Carey said the incident is still under investigation by the department detective bureau, and that he is scheduled to meet with CHS administration “to go over this incident and security plans in general.
“This just reaffirms my position that a school resource officer (SRO) would be beneficial to not only the school community but the community at large as well,” Carey said.
Collingswood Board of Education President Regan Kaiden said that although the board was notified immediately of the incident, it hasn’t had the opportunity of a formal meeting to discuss it.
“We are taking it seriously,” Kaiden said. “District leadership is meeting with the police department to tighten up procedures, and we’re opening up the discussion to make sure that our buildings are secure and our kids are getting the services they need.”
Kaiden expressed concern that abnormal behaviors driven by social media are behind similar incidents in schools across the country, “and it’s becoming a thing that school districts need to figure out how to be agile and respond to.
“All of that is on the table for conversation with the board,” she said.
Although the board will likely take up the conversation related to Carey’s concerns about hiring an SRO, Kaiden said the body also has “reservations about the school-to-prison pipeline,” particularly in light of the events of 2016, when the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office mandated that all disciplinary cases be referred to the borough police department.
That led to a month of public and private conversations among district officials, police, and county authorities seeking to unpack the confusion of the moment.
Kaiden said the board wants to discuss approaches that would “prevent incidents like this from getting to a point where police would be needed.
“There’s a variety of ways we could go about it, and strengthening our partnership with the Collingswood Police Department is the first step,” she said.
“I anticipate over the next two months that we’ll get more information about what the schools and our partnership with the police look like, and how that has evolved now that this type of incident is occurring,” Kaiden said.
Kaiden said the board is most concerned with finding the balance among the “competing needs and concerns” related to security and providing the kinds of support services that children who engage in these behaviors require.
“Everybody wants to make sure that no matter where they send their kids that their kids are always safe, and that’s incredibly important,” she said.
“Finding a way to treat the kids and get to the place where school intervention is not needed in the first place is a better way to figure that out.”
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