In the days after the tragic events of April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School, school safety was redefined. Before Columbine, the issue of school safety mostly dealt with fighting, accidents and bullying. After that unthinkable day in Littleton, Colorado, school and police officials had to contemplate ways to keep students and staff safe from armed assailants trying to kill as many people as possible in a school.

Since Columbine, there have been many other attacks on schools around our country. In the Parkland, Florida shootings in February, 17 deaths brought national media attention, and drove school safety and security to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. In the first 79 days of 2018, elsewhere across the country, there were six school shootings, or one shooting every 13 days.

For the school and law enforcement community, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012 was the event that made everyone realize school security must be the number one priority. School security cannot be something we do sometimes, it has to be the priority all of the time. Statements like, “it can’t happen here,” or “if you can’t prevent everything, don’t do anything,” are very dangerous.

These tragedies can happen anywhere at any time. Improving school safety and security can be expensive, but it can be implemented in stages. It may be impossible to allocate enough funds in one year to accomplish all of the improvements that have been discussed, but it may be possible to earmark some funds each year to chip away at the list
and accomplish security goals.

Denville Meets Post-Sandy Hook In our community of Denville, immediately after the tragedy in Sandy Hook, the police chief and school officials met to discuss the status of safety and security in all of our schools. (Denville Police Chief Chris Wagner, who was the department’s chief at the time, called the meeting in Denville, while current Denville Superintendent Steve Forte, who worked in another district at that time, held a similar meeting there.)

Everyone in the room agreed we needed to continue working to provide a safe and secure environment, but one where students could continue to learn.  One takeaway from the meeting was that each school building principal wished they had an armed police officer in their school.

It was during this meeting that the idea of placing retired, armed police officers in schools was born. After much work and cooperation between schools and police, the state of New Jersey eventually passed legislation, in January 2017, creating the Class III Special Law Enforcement Officer to provide security in schools. Although this took five years after Sandy Hook, during that time we continued to take other action in the schools to prevent a violent encounter from occurring.

In this article, we have briefly outlined some of the different projects implemented, measures taken, and the stakeholders that need to be identified to gain trust and cooperation in Denville. We call those the “eight spokes on the school safety and security wheel.” It is our hope that other districts can benefit from this discussion.

Top Priority In Denville, school safety and security is the most important thing we do. It is the priority of everyone involved, because all students need to feel safe and be safe in order to learn at an optimal level.  In addressing security measures, we have tried to make our schools like castles, not correctional facilities; a castle is beautiful, safe and secure. It’s not necessary to make our schools like prisons, where students are not free to roam the hallways, learn and have fun. All police and district staff work in concert to create the most secure facilities possible where learning can happen and students can flourish. 

Police/School Relationship and Trust In our district, a positive relationship between the superintendent and chief was already established. We recommend that districts and police departments identify personnel from both entities who can collaborate effectively to provide a safe environment. It may not always be the superintendent and chief who can work together, and that is fine. It just has to be someone and it has to get done. Consistent police involvement in the schools fosters a strong trusting relationship.

Communication We communicate with parents, staff, students and all other stakeholders to let them know that the safety and security of students and staff is our number one priority. Although we communicate with everyone about school security, we are careful not to discuss specifics about our plans. While we will share our methodology for lockdown procedures, and that we offer options to run, hide or fight, it’s not necessary to broadcast to the entire community that you placed bullet-resistant glass in some of your windows and entryways, but not in every school classroom window and door. Instead, we might mention that we have taken measures to harden our entryways in order to prevent an unwanted intruder. When we communicate to our stakeholders it is always done collaboratively with the police and the schools. This informs the public that the schools and police are working as a team on the security plan.

Students and Staff Behavior and Trust The behavior of students and staff is very important to the success of a strong school safety program. When they all feel security is a top priority, we achieve buy-in, and they will work together with us to achieve our safety and security goals. For instance, at our schools, it’s a rare occasion to find an entry door propped open or a classroom door unlocked during the school day. Students and staff feel free to provide information about their safety, including when they feel it has been compromised.

Facilities and Technology When we began to take a hard look at our security measures, we became somewhat overwhelmed by the number of items we needed to address and the potential costs associated with some of the items. We decided to select some of the “low-hanging fruit” that was easiest to address and least expensive, but that provided a high level of security. For our district, that item was deciding to simply lock all of our doors, all of the time. Every door already had a lock, all we had to do was use it! If you are wondering where to get started in your school, make sure all of your door locks are functioning properly and are locked at all times while students and staff are present.

Moving forward, other items we considered and installed were cameras, security vestibules and the implementation of communication devices and software, such as Share 911. These items help by providing live updates on student and staff locations and safety status.

Preparedness In Denville, we conduct staff professional development dedicated to safety and security each year in concert with the police, mental health professionals and other experts. Keeping our staff up-to-date on the measures being implemented to improve safety also helps with staff buy-in. In our district, the members of the police department are present for every emergency drill. Drilling and practicing tactics with the police helps to make the drills more meaningful and impactful. Not only do we ensure we are following our best practices, but it allows the police officers to become familiar with the school facilities. We also provide our staff and students options for emergencies like Run-Hide-Fight and ALICE rather than just instructing them to lock down in a classroom. In addition, we include students when training on situational awareness and other behaviors that help provide a higher level of security; for example, informing a staff member when they feel uncomfortable or see something out of the ordinary. When an incident occurs, whether it be in Denville or anywhere in the world, we always evaluate and revise procedures and drills as needed.

Behavioral Health School culture and climate are integral parts of a school district’s safety and security protocols. By encouraging and emphasizing to our students and staff the social and emotional learning message of treating each other kindly, we hope to create a school climate that is safe, secure and welcoming to everyone. Our best chance at stopping school violence is prevention, and finding out that a suspect or student might be planning a violent event and stopping it before they ever take action. We feel that is it important to empower our students and staff to feel comfortable reporting behaviors that are out of the ordinary right away.

In the rare occasion that a student is in crisis and at risk of harming him or herself or others, we take swift action to get the student to a mental health professional in order to receive a psychiatric screening. The results of the screening help us determine the best plan for the individual student, to help them return to school when needed supports are in place to allow the student to succeed. The police are involved whenever weapons or violence is suspected.

Security Personnel All of the planning, professional development and culture and climate changes that were put in place still did not provide the last piece of our comprehensive safety and security plan. We added an armed Class III special police officer to strengthen our security plan. We are now discussing plans to add more Class III special officers going forward.

When we decided on the type of security personnel to employ, we discussed the issue with stakeholders prior to making our final decision. Adding security personnel to a budget may be difficult due to the recurring and increasing costs. There are creative ways to fund these positions; we shared the costs of salaries, equipment and training between the school board and the municipality. We started small for two reasons; first, to acclimate the staff, students and community to the idea of an armed police officer in the schools, and second to introduce the costs into the budget incrementally.  

Conclusion The comprehensive safety and security plans that we have discussed in this article have been implemented over several years and with tremendous trust and cooperation between Denville’s police department and school district. No individual superintendent, teacher, police chief or mental health professional will be able to effectively handle these measures alone. We have found over the years that open communication, trust and understanding of each other’s interests and organizational missions helps to further the plans rather than stall them from moving forward. 

If you are considering enhancing your security plans, but are not sure where to start and seem overwhelmed by the magnitude of things to consider, then consider this: There is no single “magic pill” for preventing school violence. Instead, as suggested earlier, start by making a list and grabbing the “low-hanging fruit” first. Then, slowly address each additional item depending upon budgets, personnel and sustainability. Finally, make sure that it’s your intention to follow through, every day, with your security plan.  

Steven Forte is superintendent of the Denville Township School District. Chris Wagner is chief of the Denville Township Police Department.