For students in New Jersey and across the nation 2018 was a fearful year. Several bus accidents — one fatal — occurred in the state. And there were fatal attacks on schools, including the shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida which took the lives of 17 students, one of whom was from New Jersey. A Center for Homeland Defense and Security database with almost 50 years of data shows that 2018 has had the highest number of school shootings ever recorded in a year.
With these tragedies in mind, the Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy moved this week on several bills related to school security and bus safety.
“After the tragic school bus accident in Paramus earlier this year, it became clearer than ever that we must act to protect our children and educators through common sense school bus safety reforms,” Murphy said. In May, a school bus was struck when the driver cut across three lanes of traffic attempting to make an illegal U-turn. More than 40 passengers from East Book Middle School were wounded and 10-year-old Miranda Vargas and teacher Jennifer Williamson, 51, were killed.
Murphy signed a package of bills reforming school bus safety which were crafted to address specific issues that led to the Paramus crash. According to police reports, the driver, Hudy Muldrow Sr., 77, had been decertified as a bus driver and his medical certificate had expired. Muldrow was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide as a result of the crash.
There was also movement on several education measures that would make graduating college easier in the state and introduce new curriculum requirements about consent for physical contact and the cultural and political contributions of LGBTQ individuals.
What the governor signed
“Thanks to our actions in partnership with the Legislature, parents will be able to send their children to school knowing that school buses and school bus drivers are being held to extremely high standards designed to ensure the safety of students,” Murphy said in a statement.
Other bus bills ready for Murphy’s signature
The Legislature sent an additional two bus-related bills to the governor’s desk, both sponsored by Democratic Assembly members Chris Tully (Bergen, Passaic), Lisa Swain (Bergen, Passaic), and Daniel Benson (Mercer, Middlesex).
One (A-4224) would order the Commissioner of Education to study school bus accidents in the state and present a report to the governor and Legislature, including any recommendations to improve safety. The other (A-2436) would require training for district transportation supervisors who have less than 11 years’ experience in the role.
“This is the first step to ensuring an emergency response plan is in place for school districts in regards to school bus incidents,” said Swain (D-Bergen, Passaic). “In order to ensure the safety of students on school buses, we have to understand what is being done currently in districts and in the state to respond to such emergencies.”
Trying to make college affordable
Murphy signed two bills acting on his commitment to improve college affordability in the state:
The governor conditionally vetoed two bills — a bill (S-1697) exempting school buses from the recent fuel-tax increase and another (A-4342) that would require students to carry an ID card at off-campus activities.
More safety measures in the works
Several measures on school security also advanced this week, including “Alyssa’s Law” (A-764) named after Alyssa Alhadeff, a 14-year-old student and former Woodcliff Lake resident who was killed in the Stoneman Douglas shootings in February. The bill, which passed the Assembly and is awaiting action in the Senate, would require public schools to install silent panic alarms in building to alert law enforcement in case of an emergency.
“A quick response from law enforcement to an emergency can make all the difference in the outcome,” said bill sponsor Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union). “We owe it to these children and the adults charged with their care to give them as much help as possible, if they are ever confronted with a life and death situation.”
A bill (A-1400) broadening the eligibility requirements for “Class III” special law enforcement officers (SLEOs) also unanimously passed out of the Assembly. Class III SLEOs were established in 2016 under the Christie administration to act as armed protection on a part-time basis in schools across the state. This new measure would allow individuals who had served in any law enforcement position or who served as a law enforcement officer for a federal law enforcement agency to be appointed a Class III SLEO. It also would allow the officers to serve in county vocational schools.
In addition, a measure to double security funding for nonpublic schools to a record $22.6 million is now on the governor’s desk. It received unanimous approval from both the Assembly and Senate as well as from several religious groups. In October, a hate-fueled shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue claimed the lives of 11 and drove up support for protecting students at nonpublic schools.
“This allocation will provide critical funding to keep our children in nonpublic schools safe and secure,” Teach NJ Chair, Sam Moed said in a statement.
A policy on nepotism?
In addition, to bills on school safety and security, the Legislature is considering several other education-related measures: