Tragedy in Connecticut Spurs School-Safety Response in New Jersey

John Mooney, Founding Editor | December 13, 2013 | Education
Surprise drills, contingency planning have been focus of statewide effort in aftermath of Newtown massacre

Credit: Marie Reynolds
State officials visit a school in the Mount Laurel district during a surprise inspection to monitor emergency preparedness.
In the aftermath of the school shootings in Newtown, CT, last year, New Jersey’s schools stepped up their vigilance in a number of ways: tighter security at the front doors of schools, more detailed plans for how to respond to intruders, and even a few cases in which police were assigned to school buildings.

A continued focus has been on conducting regular drills to simulate possible crises, ranging from the horrific prospect of an “active shooter” to bomb threats — and even the old-fashioned fire-emergency drill.

A year after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School left 26 people dead, 20 of them children, New Jersey officials say school security continues to improve, thanks to new training and screening procedures.

“Post-Columbine and now post-Sandy Hook, we are seeing our schools more stringent and more diligent,” said Anthony Bland, the school safety coordinator for the state Department of Education. “You can see the sense of urgency in what they do.”

New Jersey had long had some of the more expansive requirements for schools to conduct drills and have emergency plans, but last winter’s events brought still more attention, especially regarding the drills.

Among the biggest changes has been the state’s stepped-up review of emergency drills, including unannounced visits to schools as they stage mock emergencies.

In all, 109 such visits took place in the last year in 46 districts, covering virtually every county. Most were public schools, but charter schools and private schools were also part of the spot checks.

By and large, state and local officials said it has been a productive exercise. In Mount Laurel, a surprise visit in September from a state team that included the state’s attorney general certainly caught their attention.

“Nothing like them showing up at the door,” said Marie Reynolds, that school district’s communications director.

Bland, the state coordinator who has been involved in much of the training and reviews, said that, by and large, districts have responded well.

The monitors take a thorough look at each school and its emergency procedures.

For example, in a lockdown for an “active shooter,” the checklist includes whether all classroom doors are locked or whether the doors even have working locks. Other questions center on how alerts are communicated and whether any staff members may have missed the alert and continued to work during the drill.

Bland said the reviews have looked at other specific elements, too, including communication plans for families, coordination with police, and planning for extraordinary circumstances.

“Whether it could be during a change of classes, maybe during a lunch period, it gives you an authentic look of what it really looks like,” he said.

In Mount Laurel – one of nearly 50 districts to get a surprise visit from the state this year — Bland led a team that included state Attorney General Jay Hoffman to see how the Burlington County district would respond to a crisis.

Showing up at the door of Hartford School, the team – which also included state Homeland Security Director Edward Dickson — asked the administration to call a drill for an “active shooter.”

“They just showed up and told us what they wanted to see,” said Reynolds, the district’s communications director.

She said the lockdown was successful in itself: “The doors were locked, the windows closed, the teachers took students into corners of the classrooms where they weren’t visible.”

But she said it was also important to test the response to different contingencies, such as whether classes were outdoors or between classrooms.

“The staff may not know it, but there is always a scenario we are testing behind the scenes,” she said. “We are not just locking down for the sake of locking down, but the principal has a whole scenario he wants to see.”

In the end, Reynolds said, every drill should be a learning experience, showing something that administrators and staff can improve. The state team suggested a few variations, she said, including trying drills during lunch or dismissal or even during bad weather.

“Every time you have a drill, you hear more ideas,” she said. ‘There is always at least one staff member who said it got them thinking about what would happen in their classroom, and maybe something more they can do.”