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Does School Security Mean Transforming Facilities into Fortresses?

Active shooter drills, armed guards, video surveillance, safety training for all personnel, including lunch aides and janitors — is this the new face of education in New Jersey?

school security active shooter
School personnel watch an active shooter drill; the students on the floor are playing the part of the wounded.

This is the second in a two-part series on school security. Follow this link to read the first installment.

In the months since the February shooting at a high school in Parkland, FL, and on the eve of the national day of action against gun violence in schools, New Jersey students, legislators, law enforcement agencies, educators, and parents have all been taking steps to make schools more secure and to rethink the very definition of school safety.

As some schools across the state work to find funding to armor their buildings and install security technology, state law enforcement officials and educators are looking for ways to strengthen and protect schools from the inside, out. They’re isolating methods like active shooter drills, installing special law enforcement officers in schools, training teachers and other personnel, and improving the social culture of schools themselves.

“In the 24 hours after the Parkland incident, I received no less than a dozen emails from solicitors selling the newest, best devices for my school district. I had a number of parents sharing their best practices. What I am asking for is more direct guidance in how we handle incidents in schools,” Hopewell Valley Superintendent Thomas Smith said at a recent joint legislative hearing on school safety this month. He said protocols across district lines often vary and state guidance has been lacking. Smith put a request to the Assembly and Senate education committees.

“Can you, will you, put together one set of standard operating procedures that are universal across all school districts across New Jersey?” he asked. “Mandate that are used by all police officers, all school districts and all teachers?”

Recommendations, not requirements

school security cop

As it stands, state agencies like the Department of Education (DOE), Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning, and Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness can only make recommendations and cannot require a school district to perform certain security measures.

That responsibility and the relevant details reside with district superintendents and the schools themselves. But some superintendents like Smith fear there is more they could be doing to protect their students apart from spending the budget on bulletproof glass.

Acting Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet agreed that more training and resources are necessary.

“While we cannot control individual student behavior we can provide guidance and support through training and resources to the districts in order to assist the ability to identify promising practices and effective preventative strategies,” said Repollet.

Since the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey School Security Taskforce released reports in the years following the Newtown, CT, elementary school shooting, few of their recommendations have been adopted. But other recommendations are slowly working their way through the Legislature.

Strengthening school security laws

As of 2018, school security laws in New Jersey have expanded and taken on several updates.

The New Jersey administrative code requires all districts in the state to have a school security plan that must be designed locally with the help of key stakeholders like law enforcement, emergency management, public health officials, and others. Those must be reviewed and updated annually.

There is a statewide requirement for all school boards to have a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with local law enforcement to discuss current safety procedures and processes within each school. Additionally, boards of education are now required to have a separate agreement with local law enforcement for accessing live video streams of any surveillance equipment that schools already have installed.

What’s more, the NJDOE is establishing a New Jersey School Safety Specialist Academy charged with implementing a certification program. As of January 17 of this year, the superintendent of each district is required to designate a specialist who receives ongoing professional development on national and state best practices, free of charge.

As lawmakers continue to hold listening sessions and legislative hearings — the next is on April 23 — several school security bills have made progress in the State House.

Last week, a bill requiring public elementary and secondary schools in New Jersey to install panic alarms and red emergency lights cleared the Assembly. The measure, called “Alyssa’s Law” is named after Alyssa Alhadeff, a 14-year-old former Woodcliff Lake resident who was killed during the Parkland shooting.

Another bill in the Assembly sponsored by Assemblywomen Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth), Nancy Munoz (R-Union), and Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) would require the DOE to establish an online school-security resource clearinghouse for districts to exchange information about security resources, including personnel and equipment, that they could share with other districts in case of an emergency.

Regular drills

school security
Many active shooter drills, such as this one, strive to be as realistic as an actual event.

The standard preventive tactic at use in all schools across the state is emergency drilling. New Jersey state law requires every school to have at least one fire drill and one school security drill each month. Newly implemented amendments to the law now require a law enforcement officer to be present at one of the school security drills each year in order to make recommendations on improving drill procedures.

Since 2014, the DOE has logged numerous unannounced active-shooter drills, and they said guidance and strategies have evolved over time. Parents and teachers, however, have noted areas of weakness in the drills that DOE officials have said they are working to fix.

The biggest concern is that the drills are too uniform: They happen during classroom hours, are designed for abled students, occur on a predictable schedule. The recommendations repeated by several experts at the joint legislative hearing as well as the most recent state Board of Education meeting are that schools begin holding drills more randomly: during sporting events, large assemblies, lunch periods and after-school activities. What’s more, questions remain about how to handle students with special needs, especially those who may be distressed by loud noises or commotion.

Some parents, Repollet said, are fearful and wary of the drills. Parents are often not given any details and usually find out about the drills when their kids come home. Though some parents argue they should be informed when and how those drills are conducted, keeping the details under wraps is a crucial part of protecting the students. Unfortunately, sometimes the safety threats can come from parents.

“Unannounced drills are effective for one reason: It’s almost like practice or a scrimmage,” Repollet said. “We wanted to see if the back door was propped open in the cafeteria, which doors were locked and unlocked and so on.” He said he’s often confronted by parents who are concerned that the drills could be frightening for younger students. Without details, they imagine the worst: Armed officers bursting through the doors acting as if an active shooter is on the scene.

“It does not happen like that.” Repollet said. “It’s a coordinated effort with local prosecutors and local law enforcement. It’s done very professionally.”

Hiring school resource officers

school security school resource officer

And local law enforcement officers are doing more than just assisting with drills. About 70 schools in the state employ school resource officers (SROs). These are sworn police officers assigned with the full-time duty of protecting a school. They are specially trained in school security and are the gold standard for school-safety practices. The SROs, however, do not work for free.

Employing a full-time, trained police officer means funding that officer’s salary and benefits which can cost close to $100,000 every year. This means most of the SROs in the state are usually working in more affluent districts, creating a security gap that mirrors the wealth gap.

A potentially lower-cost option is a part-time, special law enforcement officer. Under a new law enacted in 2016 by the Christie administration, a “Class III” special law enforcement officer (SLEO) may be hired by schools to offer armed protection when classes are in session or the building is otherwise occupied. These Class III SLEOs must be retired law enforcement officers, under the age of 65, and must have previously served as a fully trained, full-time police officers in the state. The Class III SLEO can only offer assistance to local law enforcement with security duties and is also prohibited from receiving any pension or healthcare benefits through the position.

Class III SLEOs differ from Class I and Class II officers in the depth of training. Class I (usually deployed as traffic detail) officers don’t have full policing powers and are not authorized to carry firearms. Class II officers — until 2016 — were the go-to option. They work part-time and are a much less expensive option than an SRO; however, they are not specifically trained for a school setting and because they are part-timers, state law limits their work hours and the number of such officers that a municipality may employ.

There’s also a bill currently being considered in the Assembly that would establish a pilot program in the DOE to recruit and train veterans for school safety service across the state.

Some schools that do not want to wait, or feel the state laws are too constraining, have taken it upon themselves to hire armed guards from private companies. The difference between SROs and hired security guards is an important one. SROs have the power to arrest students; security guards don't.

In light of President Donald Trump’s announcements after the Parkland tragedy, there has also been talk in some districts of arming teachers. Though most in the state — including Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Education Association — are not in favor of that prospect.

“NJEA is adamantly opposed to the idea of arming educators as a response to the scourge of gun violence in our public schools,” Marie Blistan, NJEA president said in a statement. “Turning schools into arsenals will put children and staff more at risk of becoming victims of gun violence.”

Training for school personnel

One SRO in a school may be the gold standard for armed protection but experts say there is much more that can be done to prepare school employees, most of whom have little knowledge about emergency preparedness.

“(Protection) is something that most of us did not go to school for,” Hamilton District Superintendent Scott Rocco said at the joint hearing. “Most of the teachers, superintendents, and principals that are in our schools have not had a single school-safety class while training to be a teacher.”

According to new amendments to the school security law, all full-time employees in public and nonpublic schools will now receive annual training on school safety and security. Before the amendment, training was only provided once, and only to teachers. The new law allows lunch aides, janitors, school support staff, and other onsite adults to receive the training necessary to keep a school safe.

The new law requires that training to be conducted collaboratively by the district and emergency responders, including law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical services personnel.

Beyond the ‘fortress effect’

But all of the training and armed guards in the world are not a 100 percent impenetrable defense against a school shooter. Tracey Severns, director of student performance at Mt. Olive school district, said the most overlooked and cost-effective method to prevent school violence is cultivating a sense of belonging and safety within the school itself.

“I found myself as a school administrator frustrated in meetings where it feels like the primary focus was how to create this ‘fortress effect.’ How to shield our schools from the dangers and threats that may lie from the outside,” Severns said. “No amount of bulletproof glass or security procedures will solve the problem. I don’t care how high the fence. It’s not going to help.”

The behavioral analysis unit of the FBI’s Newark Division has reported that although a specific profile of a typical school shooter does not exist, there are some commonalities among most perpetrators. Among the most frequent indicators: School shooters are “brittle people” likely to experience feelings of persecution and alienation and are often victims of neglect and abuse and lack a support network of friends and family. These are issues, Severns said, schools can help with or at the very least, discover before a situation becomes violent.

Severns referred to data from the Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations, which has collected survey responses from parents, teachers, and students nationwide for more than 30 years. According to their database, 56 percent of students feel like they don't have a voice in decision making at school and 54 percent believe their teachers don't care if they're absent. This poses a huge risk, Severns said, and should be taken more seriously.

Severns said the most important and easily implementable fix is creating a school environment where kids feel known and noticed. Where all adults — not just teachers but also custodians, paraprofessionals, secretaries, and law enforcement officers on campus — are deliberate and intentional about learning every student’s name and are paying attention to the relationships and interactions taking place in a student’s life. Currently, there simply aren’t spaces or systems designed to make students feel heard or listened to, Severns said.

“Kids out there on the margins, who are sitting in the shadows, we need to make sure that we draw them in and they feel cared for. That they’re missed when they are absent,” Severns said. “Anyone is much less likely to come in and want to hurt someone if they like and love that person and feel known and cared for.”

In Mt. Olive, administrators restructured the schedule to have two “advisory periods” a week where kids met in small groups with an adult and “we'd look at each other and ask ‘how are you doing’ and we'd actually listen to the answer,” Severns said.

She said her advice to legislators and school officials in all of these discussions about school safety is to restructure and reorganize the school environment to “elevate and celebrate” the voices of everyone within school communities.

“We're underappreciating the power of the people within the school. The role of that in keeping us all safe. It’s all right here for us.” Severns said. “Yes, sure there are drills we can do, but why hide from bullets if we can prevent them in the first place”?

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