School-Security Task Force’s Report Recommends Measures to Bolster Safety

John Mooney | July 13, 2015 | Education
While calling for giving staff and students ID and access cards, panel hedges on armed personnel and silent ‘panic alarms’

school security
Two years after it was formed, the Christie administration’s task force on school security has issued a 59-page report with 42 recommendations for making the state’s public schools safer.

Many of the recommendations were predictable or even redundant in the context of existing laws and guidelines, including calls for better coordination with law enforcement, better communication during emergencies, and better (and smarter) design of new school buildings.

But several of the suggestions were noteworthy, both for what they did and did not recommend that the state require of its schools. Here are three of those recommendations:

School security staffing

The big question facing the task force, which was formed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut, was whether New Jersey schools should start having armed security in every building to prevent similar tragedies.

The task force said yes — and maybe.

On one hand, the group recommended that schools to work with law enforcement to “develop strategies for the placement” of police school resource officers (SROs) in all school buildings. And it offered some guidance for arming other security personnel.

But the report stopped short of recommending that the state require armed security personnel, saying the cost and implementation would be different for each community and should be considered locally.

Bottom line: the report said local districts should make the call, but encouraged the practice.
“Provided that carefully selected and appropriately trained personnel are assigned to protect the safety and security of school personnel and property, the concept has merit, and there is an increasing sense among law enforcement and educators that SROs are effective in protecting people and property,” the report read.

Panic alarms

Since Sandy Hook, the closest that New Jersey has gotten to significant changes in state policy has been with use of “panic alarms” in schools, which would essentially alert police to an emergency with the punch of a button.

With overwhelming majorities, the state Legislature has passed legislation to require such silent alarms, including emergency lights outside school buildings.

But so far Gov. Chris Christie has twice vetoed those bills on the grounds that the task force would be reviewing the idea.

[related]The task force said it supports the concept but that the state should not require the panic alarms, citing the strengths and weakness of each system, and the potential cost to school districts. A fiscal analysis of the legislation said such a statewide requirement would cost between $2.5 million and $12.5 million.

“While the Task Force recognizes the potential value of panic alarms in alerting law enforcement to school emergencies, due to the significant variations, capabilities, and costs of these systems, as well as their different strengths and limitations, the Task Force believes that, prior to any State mandate for their implementation, more research is needed on the State and/or local level to determine what types of systems will be most effective given the unique needs and resources of individual school districts and the law enforcement agencies that serve them,” it concluded.

Identification and access cards

One of the report’s strongest recommendations calls for issuing identification and access cards to all staff and students, something that is not uncommon now but is hardly standard practice.

The report said all staffers should be required to wear ID cards that are “clearly visible at all times while in the building.” It also recommended that districts have systems in place to screen visitors against sex-offender registries.

Its recommendation for children was that districts each develop their own system for students to wear the IDs, maybe in conjunction with meal cards or other such programs.

The report did not recommend some of the high-tech systems that are popping up in schools, including retina or other biometric scanners installed at school entrances. It said such technologies, at this point, are “ill-suited” in terms of schools’ unique needs and requirements, and that further advances and research are needed.