New Jersey Puts Focus on School Lockdown Drills in Wake of Newtown Tragedy

John Mooney | January 17, 2013 | Education
State augments rigorous regulations to further protect students and staff against the unthinkable

In the weeks and months following the Newtown, CT, mass killing, much of the attention in schools has been on lockdown drills and how they can be practiced and adjusted to prevent or at least minimize casualties in the event of an armed intruder.

They’re tough questions, but growing all too real. And there are others: Are teachers and staff prepared to respond protect themselves and their children? Are effective alerts in place, ones that warn of the presence of an “active shooter”? Can each room be secured and everyone in it shielded from harm?

In the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, New Jersey school officials have repeatedly said that the state’s requirements are as strict as any in the nation, calling for ongoing security planning and specific lockdown and active-shooters drills several times a year.

Now, state officials said they will step up their efforts to make sure those requirements are being met.

In a presentation to the State Board of Education yesterday, officials said that they will start conducting unannounced visits and drills in selected districts to ensure that the proper steps are being followed.

Anthony Bland, the state Department of Education’s coordinator of school preparedness and emergency planning, said that there would be a 10-point checklist for security teams to run through when visiting schools and evaluating drills.

“Do the people know what they are doing? Are they moving with a sense of urgency? Are the doors locked? Was it all done in a timely fashion?” Bland asked afterward, listing a few of the points that are still being fine-tuned by the state’s School Security Task Force.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said that he believes schools by and large comply with the requirements and are well-prepared, but the extra evaluations will help reinforce that.

“New Jersey has long been a leader in preventative measures and preparation, and I think continuing down that path finds the right balance between safety and a supportive learning environment for kids,” Cerf said afterward.

“While districts have always free to use that as a floor and add additional measures, we think that floor is very high,” he said.

The spot checks are one of several steps that officials said will help districts be better prepared in case the unthinkable occurs. Other security innovations include refresher courses this spring across the state for school administrators and a template for districts to document and catalogue their ability to respond.

The first school safety newsletter issued by the School Security Task Force went out to districts last week as well.

Bland was reluctant to comment on specifics when asked if the state’s security measures would have helped at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where an intruder shot his way into a locked building.

“No matter what we do to ensure the safety of our schools, we cannot stop all evilness and senseless acts of violence,” Bland said in an interview. “But what we can be confident in is if our schools and staff in this state are practicing and drilling their plan, it can minimize disruptions and those put in harm’s way.”

“If our schools drill appropriately, it can eliminate the increased numbers of casualties,” he added. “That’s a fact.”

He also said that there were some lessons to be learned from the Newtown shooting and from the experiences of other schools and states. For instance, is the use of code words to alert staff to a lockdown the best approach when there may be parents or volunteers in the building?

“The one thing we are noticing is a move to common language,” Bland said. “Schools use codes to initiate a response, but that may not be the most effective and timely.”

He also said that there should be new guidance to enable schools close to each other to conduct drills together. He also suggested that drills should be practiced at different times of day, such as when students are at lunch or coming off the bus.

“During the change of classes, that is a very effective way for a school and its administrators to test their plan,” he said.