With hate crimes on the rise across the country, religious and parochial school advocates statewide are pushing for more state funding for security at their schools.
Arafat Ayub, a junior at Noor-Ul-Iman School in Monmouth Junction, shared his concerns at a forum on Thursday, where representatives from various parochial schools and legislators met to discuss security funding.
“When I hear about threats to Islamic schools and mosques, it bothers me, my family, and those around me. It’s difficult to comprehend that thousands of students around this country are worried about their safety at school,” he said.
New legislation introduced in the Assembly would secure equal funding levels for school security across both nonpublic and public schools. The bill seeks to allocate $148 per pupil for private school security — the amount now distributed to public schools. Private schools — both parochial and nondenominational — currently get $75 per pupil from the state for security.
Ayub called on Gov. Phil Murphy, the state Senate, and the Assembly to “keep our schools in mind and our security needs in mind while discussing the new state budget.”
The event was hosted at Noor-Ul-Iman and sponsored by Teach NJS, an advocacy group dedicated to securing state funding for all nonpublic schools in New Jersey.
Unequal allocation of funds
According to Teach NJS executive director Josh Caplan, more than 150,000 children in New Jersey attend private and parochial schools across the state, representing around 10 percent of the total school-age population. An analysis by the Office of Legislative Services puts per-pupil security spending for this group at $75, under Murphy’s proposed budget, little more than half the amount for public schools.
The new bill (A-4026), sponsored by Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Bergen/Passaic), would allocate the same amount to public schoolchildren to parochial as to private schoolchildren. The measure is supported by Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak (D-Middlesex), who was also in attendance on Thursday, and Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex.)
If the measure is passed, the additional funds could be expended for any security purpose, as long as the local school superintendent agrees. Under the state Nonpublic School Security Program, the board of education in each school district maintains administrative control over all state funds designated for private schools and is required to provide security services, equipment, and technology to all nonpublic schools within their public school district.
To achieve funding parity at the $148 per-pupil level, the state would have to allocate an additional $11 million, on top of the proposed $11.4 million in security funds listed in the budget plan for 2019. Teach NJS, however, is seeking more.
“For fiscal year 2019, Teach NJS is seeking $28.5 million in funding for security in nonpublic schools to be included in the state budget. An increase of over $17 million,” Teach NJS founder Nathan Lindenbaum said. “We know that the security needs of our nonpublic students are as vital as our public school students and we are confident that our elected officials will understand the importance of bringing parity to this situation.”
Adressing fear with funding parity
School-security funding parity has been Schaer’s battle for years and one he is hopeful he will win this year.
“This bill comes at a time when we need it so very desperately. This comes at a time when parents are saying to us that they fear bringing their children to parochial schools. That cannot be the way it goes,” Schaer said.
The issue is close to his heart, as the assemblyman is the first Orthodox Jew in the Legislature and currently serves as the vice chair of the appropriations committee and deputy speaker of the Assembly.
Schaer led the legislative pushback when former Gov. Chris Christie repeatedly left security funding for nonpublic schools out of his budget. In 2016, Christie signed Schaer’s Secure Schools for All Children Act, establishing a state aid program for security services, equipment, and technology for students in nonpublic schools. Since 2016, the amount of per-pupil school security aid for nonpublic schools has climbed from $25 to $75 but Schaer said he is committed to seeing that number reach the $148 that public schools receive.
“The bottom line for us must be the protection of all schools in New Jersey,” Schaer said. “We ask for no more for parochial schoolchildren than for any other children. We only ask the state to recognize that wherever children go to school in New Jersey they are indeed New Jersey’s children.”
Security sticker shock
When it comes to determining how the money will be spent, school administrators say they have many areas that need to be covered.
Eman Arafa, head of school at Noor-Ul-Iman, said they receive security audits every year and “get a bucket list of things we need to get done….(the funding) would definitely help but we wouldn’t be able to complete the list.”
She added, “It’s a lot of things that we need to do from personnel to structure to different alert systems to actually help with protecting the students and protecting the building. You want the type of technology out there that is going to serve that purpose and it’s very expensive.”
Indeed, a recent NJ Spotlight analysis found costs for metal detectors, armed guards, and bulletproof glass can quickly deplete a school’s budget.
Caplan noted that the costs for nonpublic school security are often borne by parents and community members, placing the burden of ensuring their children’s safety on individuals rather than the state.
Joey Ostroff, a seventh-grader at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, spoke at the forum and called on lawmakers to take on some of the responsibility being borne by the community.
“One of the areas that the government helps us is with keeping us safe … providing funds for police, fire, and emergency services and also in supporting security in all our schools. When I hear threats to people of my religion or any religion in this country or schools I worry,” he said. “We need the members of our towns and cities who are elected to represent us in Trenton to take our safety as children as a first and foremost priority.”
Arafa said the prominence of hate crimes in the country today and the rise in the number of school shootings has created a need to “take every measure possible” to protect students.
“It’s sad that I have to stand here as a head of school and say that we have to treat our schools as military bases. We don’t want to have all that; we don’t want to feel like it’s a fortress; we just want to feel like students are safe.”