Governor, Legislature Tend to Treat School Violence as Local Issue

John Mooney | April 23, 2013 | Education
Districts across the state are weighing an array of tactics, from expanded use of ID cards to armed guards in schools

For all the recent flurry of proposals about gun safety from Gov. Chris Christie and the Democratic-led Legislature, few have sought to change much in the places that have spurred much of the discussion: the local schools.

The Christie-appointed task force created in the aftermath of the Newtown, CT, killings largely praised the steps that New Jersey schools and the state as a whole have taken in ensuring student safety.

In response, the governor in his package of gun safety proposals released on Friday said he would leave further steps to local communities to individually decide for their schools.

And the main legislative proposals have said much the same so far, with the most direct proposal from the Democratic leadership only calling for another school safety task force to further discuss potential steps.

“We were impressed by the substantial work that has been done on school safety,” said Peter Verniero, the former state Attorney General and Supreme Court justice who co-chaired the latest task force.

“That part of the equation is working,” he said yesterday. “That was the clear sense we got from the testimony, the hearings, and everything else.”

Still, there are changes afoot in many schools, and some tricky areas that the state will have to weigh in on, several players said, as educators try to stay one step ahead of the possibility of deadly violence in their midst.

For instance, districts have begun to at least talk about putting armed personnel in their buildings, and in separate requests usually reserved for academic or extracurricular programs, two of them won approval from local voters last week to specifically beef up security staffing.

Technologies for making schools safer are also being reviewed, from the expanded use of identification cards to one bill in the Legislature that would require “panic buttons” in every school to alert local police of an intruder. Others talked about the use of smartphones for the same purpose.

That raises the question: What is the state’s role in setting some guidelines or requirements. And a familiar follow-on: the inevitable issue of funding.

“I think there does need to be some basic premises laid down,” said state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), the Senate sponsor of a bill that would create a new task force to consider all these questions. “But I also think a place like Camden has very different needs than other parts of my district, and we have to give some leeway.”

One area that Norcross said would surely need state guidance is the possibility of staff or others carrying weapons in schools. Must they be active law enforcement? To whom do they report? What will be their liabilities?

“I think we will need to have some very clear guidelines for anytime we have someone with a gun a school,” Norcross said.

He did not hide his expressed view that schools need to strike a balance between safety and becoming what he called “armed fortresses.”

The use of armed officers is a topic that Verniero’s task force took up, as did the state’s existing school safety task force created under former Gov. Jon Corzine. In a report issued in 2007, it included some broad guidelines that any such staff have proper law enforcement training and be under the purview of the local police, not the school staff.

“But there are other liability issues, and questions as to how they would be trained,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the state’s superintendents association and member of the task force. “If districts want to take this route, there are questions as to what is the proper way to go.”

Bozza said he did not believe a new task force as proposed by Norcross was needed, but he did agree that the state does need to keep the discussions going as strategies, technologies, and attitudes change.

“When we first had DARE officers, there was the question of why there had to be a police car in front of the [school] building,” he said. “Now there is the question as to why isn’t there a police car in front of the building.”