Concerned mother organizes school safety session

Andover PTA volunteer motivared by Parkland tragedy


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Photos



  • Attendees respond to a question from Summit Police Sgt. Tom Rich, keynote speaker at Saturday's event. Photos by Mandy Coriston




  • Andover Township residents speak with attorney Daniel Agatino, seated, of Gruber, Colabella, Luizza & Thompson




  • The audience watches a video as part of the presentation at the Barn at Hillside Park on Saturday.




  • Organizer Nicole Pacich speaks to the crowd at the Barn at Hillside Park




By Mandy Coriston

— Can a tragedy in suburban Florida spark positive change in rural New Jersey? Yes, according to Andover resident Nicole Pacich, a mother of three and the coordinator of a community event held Saturday, April 14 at the Barn at Hillside Park, two months to the day after a school shooting in Parkland, FL took the lives of 17 students and faculty members.

For Pacich, whose two oldest children attend Florence M. Burd Elementary School, and where she devotes volunteer time to the PTA and two of the school’s enrichment programs, the Parkland shooting hit too close to home. She said she couldn’t sit idly by and “see other children fall through the cracks”, so in the first days after the heartbreaking incident in Florida, Pacich made a phone call to Andover Regional Superintendent Matthew Beck to discuss the school’s safety protocols and anti-bullying procedures. She feels very strongly that the tragedy in Parkland could have been prevented if any of the red flag warnings about the shooter had been heeded.

Pacich then followed up by contacting the Andover Township Recreation Committee, in hopes of creating a more integrated school and community calendar. She has a goal of developing safe, free programs for township youth, supervised by screened and approved adult volunteers. Said Pacich, “Sports and lessons are wonderful, but they are costly. Not all families can afford them, and we need more free activities to include lower income or at-risk kids.” After Saturday’s event, and with the support of Andover Township Recreation Committee, she will focus her attention on bringing this concept to fruition.

Further turning her words into action, Pacich began attending workshops on child safety, cyberbullying, and mental health. It was at one of these workshops that she met Saturday’s keynote speaker, Sgt. Tom Rich. Rich is in his 22nd year with the Summit Police Department and remains on active duty while traveling the country to deliver his message about open communication, online safety, and challenging stereotypes to both youth and adults. To date, he has brought his program to over 1,200 locations, reaching over a million audience members.

More than three dozen attendees on Saturday were greeted at the door of the Barn and invited to sign in on sheets organized by neighborhood, encouraging them to look around and “see who your kids’ neighbors are”. They were also given a “goodie bag” filled with community information and invited to partake in light refreshments. Many took the time before the main presentation to get acquainted and visit resource tables set up along the perimeter of the room.

Andover Regional PTA Vice-President Kelly Phillips manned a table with additional volunteers, to support Pacich’s mission and provide information on the PTA’s many activities.

“It’s important for us to highlight our events and fundraisers, and let people know what we are all about,” Phillips saids.

In addition to fundraising, The Andover Regional PTA works to supply classrooms with much-needed materials, plans “family fun” occasions, and provides assistance at school-sponsored events.

Local attorney Daniel Agatino, from the law firm of Gruber, Colabella, Luizza, and Thompson, was on hand to discuss legal issues surrounding bullying and cyberbullying.

“Parents have recourse against bullying in and out of school, including legal remedies,” he said. "It’s important to know that schools are bound by law to act if they receive complaints of bullying.”

Agatino emphasized that “parents must be aware and involved.”

Ptl. Alex Price of the Andover Township Police Department took a few moments to stop in and greet residents at the event. A familiar face to some of the parents in attendance, Officer Price has served as the L.E.A.D. program instructor at Long Pond School. Also lending her time was Weichert Realtors’ Mary Smith, a long-time Andover resident whose two daughters went through the Andover Regional School District. Smith brought spring cheer to the event in the form of a beautiful flowering plant, which she offered free entries to win as a raffle prize while spending the afternoon speaking with residents about their neighborhood concerns.

When it was time to settle in for the main program, keynote speaker Rich was prefaced by a few words from Gigi Regolizio of the Andover Township Recreation Committee and a heartfelt speech by organizer Pacich. Pacich explained that she grew up in a very tight-knit community, where all the adults cared for each other’s kids, and she wants the same for her young children. She added that she just wants "a community which helps them make memories.” Pacich also implored those present to take with them all they learned from the event, go out into the community and spread the word to others who were unable to attend.

Effusive and enthusiastic, Rich began his talk by going over the pitfalls of popular websites and social media, noting “online activities are taking our children to a different place than where we grew up.”

He offered tips for deciding when a child is mature enough for certain technologies, and warning signs that children may be too heavily involved in online activity. Engaging the audience through show-of-hands questions and a multimedia presentation, Rich spoke about being mindful of how the virtual world can have tangible consequences in the real world. Rich also impressed that parents have the ability to keep their children rooted in reality.

“Empower our kids. Teach them that their words have power,” he said. “It’s all about perception.” He encouraged adults to remind their children to “make new friends, say hi to someone on the playground, let others know they matter.”

Also speaking were representatives of the National Alliance on Mental Health, who provided literature from area agencies including Center for Prevention and Family Partnership of Morris & Sussex Counties. NAMI volunteers Jeri Doherty and Ria Smith addressed the audience to announce the beginning of a new initiative in Sussex County; a program called “Ending the Silence”. This interactive presentation is designed for students of middle and high school age and will soon be available for booking in area schools. The program tackles topics such as removing the stigma of mental illness and offers live testimonials from young people dealing with mental health conditions.

Those present at the Barn on Saturday included parents, grandparents, and community leaders, whose attendance was spurred by variety of concerns. One grandmother, referring to bullying, stated, “I want to know how to talk to my grandkids about these things, if I ever needed to pick them up after any sort of incident.”

Some parents said their children had already been the victims of bullying, and they had come to investigate the resources being offered at the event and to hear Sgt. Rich speak. A concern relayed by more than one attendee was that Andover Regional Superintendent Beck seemed unsupportive of Pacich’s ideas and had been unwilling to promote Saturday’s program through the school.

Speaking by phone Monday, Beck addressed these concerns.

“The Andover Regional School District is 100 % willing to work with our community,” Beck said, “but we were not consulted during the (planning) process.” Beck elaborated that the school district “simply did not feel comfortable promoting an educational event which they did not plan.”

When asked what she hopes people will take away from Saturday’s event, Pacich reiterated that it is all about community unification and education, protecting our children and broadening opportunities for involvement, citing the traditional adage of it “taking a village to raise a child.” She wants to have more parents and neighbors take part in events and programs, and her vision is to see “people helping people to build a kinder, more inclusive community.”

Pacich expressed gratitude to all who took the time to make Saturday’s event a success. To get in touch with Pacich about her initiatives, you can reach her by email at nicolepacich@aol.com. Any questions or concerns about existing Andover Recreation Programs can be addressed to Gigi Regolizio at gregolizio@andovertwp.org. For more information about Sgt. Tom Rich and his presentations, details can be found on his website, www.alwayconnected.com.






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