In the wake of the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Gov. Phil Murphy along with Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced they will be reviewing New Jersey’s current school safety directives. Parents, meanwhile, are demanding more action to protect their children.
Speaking at a press event yesterday, Murphy said his administration will be working with law enforcement to “review current protocol and outline additional steps being taken at the state level to augment the vigilance already being practiced by local law enforcement,” but he did not offer many other specifics.
“It is unacceptable and unthinkable that children go to school each day worried about the possibility of encountering a mass shooting,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, who attended the event, said. “We need to do more. We have strong gun control laws here in the state of New Jersey, but we can do better.”
New Jersey’s protocols to prevent or address active shooter events at schools are, for the most part, currently left to the individual districts. Current law states that schools are required to conduct at least one fire drill and one “school security” drill each month with a police officer present to observe and suggest improvements. That security drill can take the form of a lockdown, bomb-threat drill, or other non-evacuation style simulation.
As shooting tragedies continue to escalate — this year alone, there have been at least seven in the country but specific numbers are hard to come by since the federal government does not study or report on gun violence — New Jersey has taken several small steps to improve preparedness.
New laws, approved in December 2016, require that “all employees in school districts and nonpublic schools will be provided with annual training on school safety and security.” Such training was previously only provided to certificated staff members once during their career. New Jersey is one of six states that currently mandate active-shooter drills that include students, teachers, support staff, and law enforcement.
But it’s not clear what effect annual lockdown drills have when it comes to protection. The Broward County school district in Parkland has been holding such drills for more than 10 years and still lost 17 students in the most recent tragedy.
Following school shooting attacks in Orlando, Florida and San Bernardino, California the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security Preparedness, State Police, and the Office of the Regional Operations Intelligence Center developed anto be implemented in schools and workplaces. The program includes instructions for those who come face to face with a gunman — run first, then hide/lockdown, attacking the shooter only as a final option — and provides resources for recognizing gunfire sounds, aiding wounded individuals, and recognizing and reporting workplace violence.
But Murphy and law enforcement officials say there is clearly more work to be done.
While the state reviews the current policies looking for areas of improvement, Murphy said state police plans to start regular, unannounced visits to all 107 schools in their jurisdiction in an attempt to increase police visibility.
“It’s not really just about security in those schools,” said State Police Col. Patrick Callahan, “It’s about giving faculty members parents and students the opportunity to interact with our troopers. That’s where the instilling of public trust comes from.”
Grewal and Callahan also noted that increased police presence in schools was always part of the plan to ease community-police relations even before the most recent attack. New Jersey already requires every school board to have a Memorandum of Agreement with its local law enforcement agency, dictating many of the protocols in place for active-shooter situations.
“If you see Jersey troopers in schools it’s for multiple benefits, school security certainly being one of them,” Callahan said, adding that “the metric and the end result of our being in schools will give the public a sense of who state troopers are and what our role is in the protecting and raising of all of our children.”
Callahan and Murphy also implied that having more law enforcement officers on school grounds could deter a potential shooter and open up avenues for students to report suspicious behavior.
Meanwhile, parents across the state are calling for armed guards at their kids’ schools, fearing that drills and school-employed police officers will not keep their loved ones safe.
The East Brunswick school board announced this week it will be adding armed police officers to the current staff of 71 security guards (all of them former police officers) at all 11 schools in the district. Parents in Nutley are urging school officials to do the same, after the school was forced to close due to a threatening video posted on a student’s Instagram page. The police investigated the video and determined the threat was unfounded. Parents have also called for metal detectors in schools and restricted entrance during school hours.
Other districts question whether more guns, even in the hands of trained police officers, are the answer.
All these preventive measures won’t be enough, Gov. Murphy said, without “commonsense gun laws.” He urged Congress to move on universal background checks and an assault-rifle ban but said in the likelihood that nothing will get done in Washington, D.C, he intends to work with the state Legislature to pass gun control legislation such as a bill to limit gun purchases for those with mental illness.
“Nothing we are doing here will be a replacement for comprehensive gun safety reform at the federal level,” Murphy said. “We’re working aggressively on this issue with like-minded states and expect to have an announcement soon.”
In making his announcement, Murphy was joined by a number of state officials, clearly meant to demonstrate a unified front to combat the problem. Those in attendance included state Department of Homeland Security director Jared Maples, Acting Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet, Col. Callahan, Acting Commissioner of Children and Families Christine Norbut Beyer, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), and Assembly Speaker Coughlin (D-Middlesex).