Union High School lockdown causes scare, controversy

Photo by EmilyAnn Jackman
Union County police officers scoured the grounds outside of Union High School as a crowd of anxious parents awaited news about the lockdown on Friday, Jan. 31.

UNION, NJ — Union High School was placed on lockdown twice for a total of roughly eight hours on Friday, Jan. 31, causing confusion and panic for parents and students alike.

Wild rumors circulated throughout the day. Fearful students texted farewell messages to their parents, many of whom raced to the school only to find the campus in full lockdown. The crowd of anxious parents quickly became angry and frustrated as they waited in the cold for hours, hoping for answers. Some parents arrived on the scene at 11 a.m. and left only after students were finally released at around 3:30 p.m.

According to a Feb. 3 press release from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, Union High School underwent two lockdowns.
The first lockdown occurred during the morning hours, when two students with weapons were discovered inside the school building. Union Police Department personnel responded to the scene, seizing a knife and a hammer, and the two students were removed from the premises. The first lockdown was then lifted.

Later that morning, at around 10:30 a.m., school security personnel imposed a second lockdown after receiving information that a student on campus may have possessed a firearm.

As rumors spread throughout the school, and prior to the arrival of law enforcement, a large group of students fled the building, resulting in an inadvertent injury to one student during the flight.

Union Police Department personnel responded to the scene, supported by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, Union County Police Department, Union County Emergency Response Team, State Park Police and officers from the K-9 units of the Union, Somerset and Middlesex counties’ sheriff’s departments. Given the incident at the school earlier in the day and the nature of the threat that prompted the second lockdown, law enforcement conducted a sweep of the building.

Union High School student Levon St. Reed was among several students who ran out of the building around the time of the second incident. According to St. Reed, students in the cafeteria were told to stand in the back of the lunchroom, after which the front doors were barricaded.

Then “apparently someone screamed,” prompting the students to flee the cafeteria.
“Everyone who ran out was just jumping fences,” said St. Reed at the scene on Friday.

Another student, Matthew Rodriquez, was also in the cafeteria. Rodriguez said that the students ran out through the cafeteria’s back doors, since the front doors were blocked by two tables.

“We all ran out from the back and through the front and everyone else was stuck in the library contacting their parents frantically,” Rodriguez told the Local Source.

He added, “A kid apparently got a hammer from a woodshop within the high school, but he was apprehended.”
Darren Martin, parent of a high school junior, rushed to the high school only to find other parents confused by conflicting reports. He expressed his frustrations to the Local Source and said that the school needed to be more transparent.

“I just like people to be honest,” said Martin. “I tell my kids to let me know when there’s going to be a lockdown in any of the schools. So my daughter let me know there was a lockdown earlier due to a hammer attack, someone had a hammer, so that kind of startled me first.”

Martin said his daughter texted him about a second lockdown at 10:22 a.m.
“They claimed someone was taken by ambulance, but that was because they were trampled while people were running,” he continued. “So, if that was true, they wouldn’t need SWAT for that. You wouldn’t need all of these officers out here … who are still checking around. That doesn’t make sense.”

Officials eventually addressed the confusion.
“There were two lockdowns today,” acting Union County Prosecutor Lyndsay Ruotolo told the press on the scene. “The protocols that were implemented were unrelated. The individual, who was an adult, was arrested this morning and removed from the premises before the second lockdown. For the second lockdown, law enforcement responded and implemented the procedures necessary to assess the threat that we received and make sure that the children and the faculty are safe.”

She continued, “It was a collaborative effort by law enforcement from all over the county, from our office, the Union Police Department, the Sheriff’s Department, Union County Police, Emergency Response Team and officers from other counties as well.”
Routolo said that the students would be released once officers completed the sweep of the school.

According to a Feb. 3 press release from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, the school released students once the building was deemed secure. The students were reunited with their parents around 3:30 p.m.
In a Feb. 1 press release, Mayor Michele Delisfort, the Township Committee and Police Director Daniel Zieser “strongly condemned” the administrators and moderators of the “Union, NJ Residents Facebook Forum” for “irresponsibly and recklessly failing to contain the false narrative” surrounding the lockdown, which contributed to the strong show-of-force response of SWAT teams and police dogs.

“The event was routine in every sense of the word,” said Zieser. “It would have been resolved in a matter of minutes, but for the reckless rumors and incendiary falsehoods spread across the Union, NJ Residents Facebook Forum. Had the moderators and administrators acted responsibly by not starting and spreading rumors, this event would not have been a non-event. Their failure to display good judgment caused undue chaos and a potentially life threatening situation.”

The incident is still under investigation by the Union Police Department.