School Killing Informs Educator’s Passion for School Safety

A murder in the hallway of Bayonne High School gave Michael Wanko a calling as well as a career

When you ask Michael Wanko about the turning point in his thinking on school safety, the Piscataway High School principal recalls an incident from 1997 — two years before the Columbine High School shootings.

“I think about the murder in my school,” said Wanko, who at the time was principal at Bayonne High School, a post he held for 20 years before moving to Piscataway a decade ago.

It was that event — one student stabbing another student in a hallway — that kindled what has almost become a calling for Wanko: speaking out for school safety. In 2001 he published “Safe Schools: Crisis Prevention and Response.”

And it was that 1997 murder that started to convince him school safety is a mix of both tangible measures like technology and manpower and intangible ones like school culture and pride.

“I learned then that schools can no longer be as open as we’d like them to be,” Wanko said. “We used to want them to be warm and welcoming to both students and their families, but I realized that you need both the hardware and the cultural things to find that right balance of safety.”

“Everyone wants a quick fix, but you need that balance,” he said.

Wanko was one of a half-dozen educators and law enforcement officials who spoke on Friday at a New Jersey School Board Association conference on school safety, the state’s first large-scale treatment of the topic since the Newtown elementary school shootings in December.

In a lengthy interview afterward, Wanko said that his opinions about school safety have changed very little over the years, and range from armed guards to student surveys and clubs to create feelings of pride and ownership.

Whether additional security would have stopped the killer in the Newtown elementary school was arguable, Wanko said, especially a heavily armed man bent on causing maximum carnage. But he added it may help prevent the next crisis.

“The lesson in Newtown is it can happen anywhere, no matter what measures you put in place,” Wanko said. “You still need to put in place as much as you can, but with the understanding you are only doing the best you can do.”

Wanko’s school safety prescription comprises a long and detailed list.

The tangible starts with an armed police officer in every school, at least part-time. Wanko stresses that this position is more of a “school resource officer,” one who is building relationships with students as much as protecting them.

With more than 2,200 students, Piscataway High School also has nine unarmed security staff, each in radio contact and able to patrol the 60-acre campus by golf cart.

The school has more than 60 exterior doors, each with an automatic magnetic lock. There are 200 cameras in and around the building, which are monitored throughout the day, Wanko said. And while there are no metal detectors at the doors, the school has a dozen wands available if it needs to scan for weapons or other contraband.

After that, the checklist gets personal. Wanko is a big believer in having students offer input using surveys focus groups — and making sure to act on their feedback.

Any activity with 10 or more interested students is represented by a club. An administrative team follows — and gets to know — each class until it graduates.

Wanko said there are clear expectations and consequences for behavior, including an extended in-school suspension system that keeps students in the building taking classes while separated from their peers.

“This is for someone who you might send to another school, but instead we keep them right here,” he said. “It’s less disruption, and makes it easier for when they return.”

Wanko has no qualms about the state’s school safety mandates which are focused on planning and fire and lockdown drills. The state also is planning to conduct surprise visits to schools during drills.

According to Wanko, the drills are especially are valuable in building familiarity and routine, as long as schools take them seriously and debrief afterward to learn from each one.

But Wanko did not think the state’s place is to mandate armed guards in every school — as some have suggested. He said smaller schools can easily share them, as Piscataway’s elementary schools do.

“The state does the best it can,” Wanko said. “Remember, when they put in a requirement, it is often without the finances to pay for it, so that can put them in a tough position.”

He added that schools need to take a hard look at potential threats and weaknesses and follow through using procedures and processes already in place.

“If things move quickly, I’m hopeful,” Wanko said. “If not, we will just move back into that false sense of security.”

“Remember, there are two types of schools, and they are not urban vs. suburban or private vs. public,” Wanko said. “It is those who have undergone a crisis, and those waiting for one to happen.”