School security and safety has always been among the most fundamental concerns of school boards and districts. But following the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, attention across the nation and state turned to ways that schools, elected officials and individuals could eliminate gun violence and improve safety in schools and elsewhere.
In New Jersey, the list of those who took action after Parkland included the governor, the New Jersey School Boards Association, the state Legislature, and students. Also included on that list are many school boards. One of those was Tenafly, in Bergen County, which launched a community task force to address school and community safety from all perspectives. A question and answer interview with Mark Aronson, a 14-year member of the Tenafly board who initiated plans for the Tenafly Community Safety Task Force, follows.
Q. In March, about a month after the tragic school shooting in Parkland, as a member of the Tenafly Board of Education you proposed creating a task force to address school and community safety in your community. Why did you propose creating the task force? What steps have taken place since?
Obviously there was an urgency after the Parkland shooting to want to take action. The matter of safety needs to be addressed as a community issue and not just a school issue. Included in the conversation, the areas of local gun laws and mental health, and protection of town-wide assets, also need to be discussed. The community task force would serve as a forum that could be more inclusive and draw on a wider range of stakeholders. In addition, it is more likely that a community-based organization would move more rapidly than either the governing body of the board of education or the borough.
The task force has been formed and created. We met with the community and at that public meeting we formed subcommittees that the public has joined and participated in. Those subcommittees are: policies and procedures; social media awareness; and legal and legislative. The policies and procedures subcommittee is further broken down into areas that included spending of resources and those areas that do not.
Q. Tell me a little about Tenafly. How many schools and students are there in the district? In brief, what is the community like?
We have six schools; four elementary, a middle school and a high school. We serve nearly 3,700 students. The community is considered to be an affluent suburb of New York with a somewhat diverse population of about 14,000.
Q. What is the makeup of the task force — are there school administrators, board members, municipal officials, teachers, etc.? Does the task force have an official name and a chairperson?
The name of the task force is the “Tenafly Community Safety Task Force.”
There are nine members: the mayor and one council member; two board of ed members including the president; a high school student; a local minister; and three citizens from the community. In addition, there are three representatives from the community as professionals, including the superintendent, the chief of police and the director of emergency management. There is not a chairperson, but the mayor and I have been leading the efforts.
Q. What is the biggest specific concern of the task force? Has Tenafly had any specific security threats, and are there any unique challenges in terms of security in its school facilities?
There is nothing unique to Tenafly. Right now, our two biggest issues are whether we place Class III officers in our schools and whether we act on a local law to enhance the safe storage of weapons.
Q. Do you have armed security personnel or school resource officers in the schools? Is there a need or desire for more?
We have one SRO (school resource officer) in the high school and he spends a limited amount of time in the middle school as well. The board is considering placing six (one for each school) Class III officers in the schools.
Q. What about physical security systems — locked doors, vestibules, security cameras, etc.?
The policies and procedures subcommittee is reviewing all of the infrastructure in place with the chief of police and the superintendent. It is likely there will be some recommendations for enhancements.
Q. Has the task force hit any obstacles so far and did you expect them — perhaps in funding or community opposition?
I think you hit on both of them — funding and community opposition. There are two hot buttons that I think will move forward more quickly, one is Class III officers, that’s going to most likely be a recommendation from the subcommittee to the full task force. My guess is the full task force will make the recommendation to the board of education and borough that we have Class III officers. The areas that we may receive pushback on are the funding element, and in addition, there probably is a subset of the population who are not comfortable having armed officers in the schools. I don’t know where it’s going to go. The other idea that is probably going to start to gain some traction is the notion of safe storage (of guns.) I’ve been working with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. They provided some legal opinions and support as to language the borough can adopt for safe storage, and offered to defend it if it gets challenged. That said, I think it’s not a consensus that’s what everybody wants.
Q. Any advice for board members and residents in other towns who may want to follow in your footsteps, in their community?
Involve both the community and the local governing body and address it as a community-wide issue. By making it a community issue, it’s not that it takes the focus off schools, but addresses the fact that the issue is broader than just the school. Involve the community members.
Q. Do you believe an effort like this committee can make a difference in school security?
100 percent yes!