Hundreds of attendees from the school community, members of law enforcement, public officials and others attended the New Jersey School Boards Association’s virtual forum, “School Security: Where Do We Go from Here?” on June 13.

The forum was held in response to a string of horrific events, including the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of 19 children and two teachers after a gunman apparently gained entry through an unlocked door. Seventeen others were injured. The 18-year-old gunman was killed by U.S. Border Patrol agents.

The event brought together mental health and trauma experts, representatives from law enforcement, and school safety officials to highlight proactive strategies to prevent violence. They also focused on how to foster a positive school climate, ways to provide social and emotional support, and how to help members of the school community cope with grief and fear.

“I wish this forum was not necessary, but we felt as the official training organization for school board members in the Garden State that it was important that we provide continued opportunities for discussion and learning on the topic of school security,” Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, executive director of NJSBA, said in introducing the forum.

He expressed sadness that ever since the school shooting and attempted bombing at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, that the nation has had to endure “unspeakable pain and heartbreak” as the result of mass shootings at schools.

“Through all of this turmoil, we must stay hopeful and strong for each other,” he said. “When we work together for the greater good, we can help protect our school community.”

Irene LeFebvre, president of NJSBA and president of the Boonton Board of Education, read a portion of Feinsod’s recent “Reflections” column in which he called for members of the school community to come together to protect our schools and save lives.

“Give yourself the gift of hearing and processing the valuable insights that today’s experts will share with you,” she said.

Keynote Speaker Shares His Story

Ian Hockley, co-founder and executive director of Dylan’s Wings of Change, lost his 6-year-old son, Dylan, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Nineteen other children and six adults were killed that day – Dec. 14, 2012.

During the forum, he talked about the nonprofit foundation’s mission to empower empathic and courageous children to create strong, inclusive communities – as well as its youth-led Wingman program’s focus on helping children develop social and emotional skills to foster a positive school climate.

Hockley, who also delivered a keynote presentation at NJSBA’s 2019 Workshop, shared that after the shooting in Uvalde, he received numerous texts and phone calls from people wanting to know whether he was OK.

“Ten years ago, I was in the very same position,” he said. “I was one of those parents being called to a school because a shooting was unfolding.” He added, “That was almost 10 years ago, and it can seem to many of us that nothing has changed … if that wasn’t the time to act, this must be.”

There is no single answer to the violence, and multiple responses will be required, he said. “So, please use this forum today to explore all these potential responses and think about how in your town you would need to implement those,” he said.

Hockley noted the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and added that we are in the middle of another epidemic – one that involves “rampant social isolation, mean behavior and exclusion” – all made worse by the coronavirus.  “This epidemic has been killing people for decades,” he said.

Mass shootings are extreme situations, but he asked attendees to consider how unsafe kids feel in school as the result of anti-social behavior and violence. He called for a drastic increase in youth support in and outside of schools.

He also emphasized that focusing on social and emotional learning will do more than just bolster school climate. “Everyone learns better when they feel safer,” he said.

He capped off his presentation by showing a picture of his son, Dylan, along with his other son, Jake, who is graduating from Newtown High School. “Dylan should be watching his big brother, Jake, cross that stage,” he said, getting choked up. “Instead, he was shot five times with an AR-15 style rifle and found in the arms of his classroom assistant, who was also murdered that day.”

He added, “When it is all said and done, Jake will be judged by the quality of his character over his grades. No one will care about his GPA, but the size of his heart will have a lasting impression on those he meets.”

He ended with, “Please work together to make your schools are as safe as possible, so New Jersey families don’t face the future that we live.”

Proactive Prevention

Dr. Maurice J. Elias, professor of psychology and director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab; Glenn Proctor, owner of REDDjobb, a public relations and crisis communications firm as well as a certified coach, grief counselor and expert on suicide prevention; Hockley; and Shauna DeMarco, superintendent of Tenafly Public Schools, led the day’s second session titled, “Proactive Prevention: Emotionally Supporting Students, Teachers and Staff.” The panel was moderated by Vincent DeLucia, NJSBA’s educator-in-residence.

“The climate of a school determines everything else that happens there,” Elias said. “It starts when they arrive, whether they feel welcome, cared about and supported.” He added, “I am glad we are starting out by talking about climate, because that is what makes everything else possible.”

Another word that people can think about when talking about climate is “culture,” Proctor suggested. It starts as students are waiting for the bus, and it continues throughout the day, he said.

“So much is dependent on what our staff is creating and what they are feeling,” DeMarco said. One way to measure school climate, she said, is to count how many times you see adults in a school smiling at each other and at students. “It is really about how you feel when you are in that learning place,” she said.

Elias has worked with a school in Ridgewood with a motto about being a learning place “where dreams are born, caring is shown and leaders are made.” He said, “Everyone knew what they had a responsibility to focus on – and it meant all kids would be shown caring, their dreams would be respected and encouraged and all of them had leadership potential.”

Not just some kids – that is the key thing, he said. We need to make sure all students are included.

School administrators should “manage by walking around,” Proctor said. He explained, “Know your people – that is absolutely imperative.” It’s also important for both students and staff to be proud of being members of the school.

A sense of pride is critical, Hockley agreed. “That sense of pride leads to a sense of community,” he said. “We include everyone and support everyone.” He added that schools must recognize that the community is an evolving one as leaders, board members, staff and students change. “It is the people that make the community,” he said. “Let it evolve and not let it be a fixed thing.”

The majority of students don’t become violent, Elias said. “The ones that do tend to signal it through their isolation and disconnection by dropping out or being chronically absent,” he said. He urged everyone to keep their eyes open and to maintain a sense of responsibility for identifying who might need help – be it someone who seems unhappy in the lunchroom or someone who does not sit with anyone on the bus.

These are not minor things – they are important to look at and identify, he said. “All staff need to be trained and empowered to recognize that they are on the front lines in identifying kids who are more likely to do harm to others because of the hurt they are feeling inside of themselves,” he said.

After students in need are identified, however, the work should not stop, Elias said. “All school districts need to have people who have expertise in negotiating outside services,” he said. That means they must be willing to help serve as a broker to help parents find their way to services – and then monitor what happens.

“Once a referral is made, everyone breathes a sigh of relief,” he said. But referrals often don’t get completed or someone drops out of the system. “We need to stay with them longer and make sure they are getting what they need,” he said.

“I could not agree more with the importance of all hands-on deck,” DeMarco said. Structures need to be in place to support staff members who see students outside the classroom – at lunch, in the hall and elsewhere.

She added that when codes of conduct are violated, that can be an opportunity to identify students in need of support. “Those procedures are powerful in getting to the core of what might be triggering behavior,” she said. It’s important to look at that process as an additional tool, and not just as a way to impose discipline.

Likewise, when a guidance counselor wants to speak to a student when class is in session, there has to be a level of trust that the student is better served in leaving class, she said.

Board members should think about how they are impacting school culture and climate with every single decision, Hockley said. Even if it’s something as simple as building a new structure, board members should ask whether it will be a welcoming place, he said.

Why Did This Happen Again?

The last session of the day featured Raymond J. Hayducka, South Brunswick’s chief of police and a past president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police; Jeffrey Gale, director/school security specialist, New Jersey Department of Education Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning; Dr. Scott Rocco, superintendent of schools, Hamilton Township School District (Mercer County); and DeLucia, NJSBA’s educator-in-residence. The men tackled the question, “Why Did This Happen Again?”

One topic they focused on was social media, and how it plays an important role in identifying threats.

“There is always a footprint that is left,” Gale said. “The breadcrumbs are almost always there in the form of social media posts or some kind of online activity.”

Numerous vendors can monitor social media in a variety of ways, something Gale’s office has encouraged. “It gives you an opportunity to see what is out there in the way of posts on the web, as far as dialogue that is taking place between individuals in schools,” he said. Schools that give devices to students can monitor activity on devices they own, he added.

Hamilton has just such a system in place, in which it tracks keywords on the devices it owns that it may need to address. It’s equally important, however, for students to speak up when they notice something that doesn’t seem right, Rocco said.

The district plans on offering a high school elective next year on how to ethically and properly develop social media posts to create something more positive, Rocco said.

The panelists also had a robust conversation on what school resource officers and class three officers can do to further a positive school climate, assess threats and respond to them.

“Facts before acts,” Hayducka said, emphasizing the need to look at each situation on its own. For instance, there can sometimes be something that looks very bad on its face that doesn’t turn out to be that way … and also something that may not look so bad that is actually quite serious.

Whatever it is, he has no qualms about calling in people to work overtime, knock on doors, and get to the bottom of it, he said. “Unfortunately, sometimes we are waking people up at night asking what was meant by this,” he said.

It’s important for school districts to have a great working relationship with their police department, Rocco said. He’s worked overnight with the police department so that when it’s time to open school the next day, everyone has a handle on a situation, he said. “That relationship is vital to school safety not only in New Jersey but across the country,” he said.

One of the key questions investigators try to answer is whether someone has the will and capacity to follow up with a threat, Gale said.  He added that one of the driving goals in threat assessment is to provide tools to get someone back on track before an act of violence takes place. “The climate and culture in a building is a high determinant of what kind of violence you can expect,” he said.

Gale said he’s a fan of having a police presence in schools, but the emphasis can’t be on making arrests. The officer must be part of the fabric of the school, he said.

He questioned those who would prefer not to have law enforcement in schools, noting that if a trained school resource officer is not there, the law enforcement community at some point will need to make an arrest. If the police do not have someone who knows the school, they will be going in blind, he said.

“I think that the right people in our schools wearing uniforms is a huge benefit for schools,” he said.

All the panelists want to wait to hear what the final investigation says about what occurred in Uvalde before making any judgements, but they emphasized the need to control access to school buildings and to take precautions with visitors, such as making sure they have an escort on school grounds. In South Brunswick, the school resource officer recently turned someone away that they had in their system as not being allowed to go into the school. “It was a student that was mad about something years ago, and as an adult, they had some mental health issues,” Hayducka said.

Everyone needs to follow the rules, Gale emphasized.

“We need to make sure our staff is held accountable for adhering to those policies and for reporting anyone violating those polices,” he said. “This is everyone’s job.” School administrators are not asking for a lot when they ask staff to keep doors locked, he added.

In Hamilton, every staff member has an ID that can open and close certain doors. Moreover, IDs are color coded, so that if a law enforcement officer is looking for an administrator, they simply look for a red ID card, Rocco said.

Conducting threat assessments is another tool, Gale said. “This is not a disciplinary process,” he said, noting that it’s important to determine what is driving behavior. Districts should be striving to identify struggling students, moving them away from violence, and giving them coping skills to get on track, he said.

As far as responding to a threat, Hayducka noted that the first priority with an active shooter is to stop the person, then rescue victims, provide medical assistance and preserve the crime scene. “What I can assure you of is that in South Brunswick, my officers fully understand they are to respond immediately, access the school and confront the shooter,” he said. “You are expected to engage.”

“Every gunshot is a life,” Gale said. “If there are active gunshots going off in that building, the first priority is to stop the shooter. That is universally understood here in New Jersey.”

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If you enjoyed the school security forum, you’ll also want to sign up for NJSBA’s Summer Safety Series. Learn more about the first program in the series: “Addressing Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying in Schools,” which will be held on Wednesday, June 29 at 11 am.