UPDATE: Superintendent Dr. David Salvo said he couldn't comment on Juliana's Choice student status due to student confidentiality.
COURT HOUSE – Shortly before noon Sept. 20, Yvette Zambrano received a phone call from her friend that she had picked up her son and Zambrano’s daughter Juliana from Middle Township High School.
The students were upset because there was talk a classmate threatened to shoot up the school.
“A friend learned about the threat when she overheard a security guard’s walkie-talkie,” Juliana said.
Juliana was at lunch in the cafeteria when she heard students talking about a shooter.
“Kids were calling their parents; some were crying, everybody was really scared,” she said.
When she asked a security guard what was going on, he said he didn’t know.
Juliana said not all students, and few parents knew of the threat. When she returned to school later in the day for cheerleading practice, her friends said no announcement was made regarding the incident.
The school does regular lockdown drills for active shooters, but Juliana said they are always during class periods, not during lunch.
“We were in the cafeteria and had no idea what to do in this situation. We never practice it,” she said.
When Zambrano, who works for Middle Township Emergency Medical Service, got the call from her friend explaining the situation and that her daughter was safe, she immediately called Middle Township police.
“The dispatcher said I was the first person to call and she would send officers to the school,” Zambrano said.
A few minutes later, Middle Township School District sent out an all-call notification to all parents explaining the situation.
“We sent the all-call notification to let parents know that after school resource officers did an investigation, it was determined that there was no credible threat and that a rumor was circulated about a video game,” said Superintendent Dr. David Salvo, of Middle Township Schools.
Middle Township Police posted an explanation of the game on their Facebook page:
“School is back in session; therefore, social media becomes the topic of parents and raises concerns for school safety. Today it was learned that our children are mimicking online video games like 'Fortnite' and 'Call of Duty,' where they use rifle scopes to zoom in on targets, which is an aspect of the video game.
"It has been learned that over the 'years' kids have been utilizing Snapchat to re-create these scenarios using their friends as the 'target' in the scope, capturing their friend candidly on video and drawing a scope, target, or bullseye on the person and distributing it. Basically, it is an 'I gotcha' type of game like how we grew up with tag or hide and seek.
"Our children are born into this digital age and unfortunately are being exposed to these types of games and pranks, which is harmless to them, but can be alarming to parents and others unfamiliar with the gaming and social media culture in today’s ever-changing society.
"Many other free applications are offered on our children’s mobile devices which can also be perceived by others as a threat or can cause false public alarm. One app in particular, Action Movie FX, allows the user to take a photo, let’s say my office desk.
"I can then overlay an action scene, which can be a missile strike or explosion, ultimately blowing up my desk. This scene is then saved and shared on social media.
"It is important that our children understand that what they may consider as a joke can be perceived by others as a potential threat and can cause alarm to many.”
Zambrano posted a Facebook message of her own:
“Today (Sept. 20) at Middle Twp. High School a male freshman student made threats to 'shoot up the school!' I received a frantic call from a mother of one of my daughter’s friends saying she picked up Jules from school and that she was safe....Thank God!
"Kids were crying, calling their parents and running out of the school! I called the police department to inform them of the situation, and I was the first parent to call as they were NOT notified!
"Dispatch sent officers out immediately! As soon as I hung up the phone the school sent out a taped announcement from the principal saying that it was a rumor and it was unfounded! HOW DARE YOU! Why would you not notify the police???
"Our children are YOUR responsibility during school, and you did not even evacuate, contact police or contact parents??? WHY??? And to top it off you did not suspend that child who made the threat??? Unfounded or not why did you not take this serious??? Shame on you Middle Twp. High School! I posted this to my Facebook and am contacting every news agency I can!”
Zambrano contacted Principal George West and Salvo to express her displeasure about how the incident was handled. Both returned her call Sept. 21.
“As soon as I said I was contacting the press, Dr. Salvo said that records indicated that we live in Town Bank and Juliana would not be able to attend school in Middle any longer. I explained that she is a Choice Program student and he signed her application,” Zambrano said.
Salvo said Juliana wasn’t on the Choice list and he would have to look into it.
New Jersey's Interdistrict Public School Choice Program enables approved choice districts to enroll K-12th grade students who do not reside within their districts without cost to their parents.
The program increases educational opportunities for students and their families by providing students with school options outside of their district of residence and giving parents the power to select a school program that best serves their child's individual needs.
Juliana attended Middle Township High School last year as a freshman. She applied to Middle Township High School as a Choice student after moving over the summer.
Salvo said he couldn't comment on that matter due to student confidentiality.
Zambrano said she would like the district to review its policies when it comes to incidents like the one Sept. 20.
“So many things about this are wrong. Their response to the threat, the lack of information to students and parents, the lack of discipline for the student or students who caused this. No disrespect, but this was handled poorly,” she said.
Zambrano said she has had a lot of response to her Facebook post and plans to encourage parents to attend the Oct. 18 Middle Township Board of Education meeting.
“I love Middle Township High School, my daughter loves Middle Township High School, but we deserve an answer to our concerns.”
To contact Carl Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org.