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During recent sessions, the Legislature has been very active in approving measures to enhance the safety of students and make the facilities they attend more secure. A spring 2017 School Leader article highlighted a series of initiatives that were approved by the Legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Chris Christie, including:

  • The creation of a new class of special law enforcement officers that will provide security in public schools (P.L.2016, c.68)
  • Required security features that must be incorporated in both new and existing school facilities (P.L.2016, c.79)
  • Enhancements to the state’s security drill law (P.L.2016, c.80)
  • Increased security aid for nonpublic schools (P.L.2016, c.49)
  • Permitting the use of emergency reserve funds or bond proceeds to finance security improvements (P.L.2016, 100)

Since publication of that article, the Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy have maintained the focus on school safety and security and advanced several additional measures summarized here.

The two initiatives that have garnered the most attention are the “Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act” and “Alyssa’s Law.” The former authorized the state to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to fund various capital improvement projects in school districts and county colleges, a portion of which would be dedicated to security enhancements. The latter required all school buildings to be equipped with emergency panic alarms linked to local law enforcement.

On August 27, 2018, Gov. Phil Murphy approved S-2293/A-3902 (P.L.2018, c.119), also known as the “Securing Our Children Future Bond Act.” By signing this measure, the governor gave New Jersey voters the final say on whether the state should borrow a half-billion dollars to finance various school district and county college capital projects. Specifically, the bond act would authorize the issuance of $500 million in general obligation bonds for the following purposes:

  • $350 million for county vocational school district (CVSD) career and technical education (CTE) grants and for school security project grants (Note: The CVSD CTE grants will require a 25% local match; the school security grants will be 100% state-funded);
  • $50 million for county college CTE grants; and
  • $100 million for school district water infrastructure improvement grants.

On the same day that the governor signed the bond act into law, he issued a conditional veto on “Alyssa’s Law,” which requires that all public school buildings in New Jersey be equipped with a panic alarm to alert law enforcement in the event of a school security emergency. The legislation was named in honor of Alyssa Alhadeff, a 14-year old student and former New Jersey resident, who was killed in the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018.

While declaring the bill a worthy public safety initiative, Gov. Murphy expressed concerns that the bill did not provide school districts with sufficient time and resources to satisfy the panic alarm mandate. Therefore, the governor recommended revisions to link purchase of the panic alarms required under Alyssa’s Law to the funding that he anticipated would become available to school districts upon voter approval of the “Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act.” If the bond act was approved, a portion of the anticipated proceeds dedicated to school security system improvements would be set aside for the purchase and installation of the silent panic alarms. At this point, the fate of Alyssa’s Law depended on the passage of the bond act.

The bond act was placed on the ballot at the November general election and needed a simple majority of the voters to approve it. The question was approved when 54% percent of the voters checked “yes.”

Following voter approval of the bond act, the Legislature concurred with the governor’s conditional veto and retuned the bill to his desk. On Feb. 6, 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy signed Alyssa’s Law, P.L.2019, c.33, which went into effect on Sept. 1, 2019. A “panic alarm” is defined as a silent security system signal generated by the manual activation of a device intended to signal a life-threatening or emergency situation requiring a response from law enforcement. Under the law, every public elementary and secondary school building must now be equipped with at least one panic alarm for use in a school security emergency such as a non-fire evacuation, a lockdown, or an active shooter situation.

As indicated above, the bond act allocated $350 million for capital improvements at the state’s county vocational-technical schools and for school security enhancements at all public school facilities. However, the law did not specify how that money would be divided between the vocational school projects and security projects. As originally passed by the Legislature, S-2293 would have authorized the issuance of $1 billion in bonds, $400 million of which was to be set aside for CVSD CTE grants and $450 million for security grants. When the governor conditionally vetoed the bill, he cut the overall amount in half to $500 million, citing concerns over the state’s existing debt load. He also combined the funding for CTE grants and security grants into a single allocation totaling $350 million, creating uncertainty as to how much would be directed to each specific purpose.

In December 2019, the New Jersey Department of Education provided clarification on the allocation matter when it proposed implementing regulations to the bond act. In the proposal, the department indicated that $275 million would be allocated for CVSD CTE grants and $75 million for school security project grants. The department proposed to allocate the majority of the $350 million to CTE grants “because it anticipates that increasing the capacity of CVSDs to offer CTE programs will mainly require school construction, which will be much more costly than compliance with Alyssa’s Law and other school security projects that qualify for school security project grants.”

The law itself lacked specificity regarding the types of school security projects that would be eligible for funding. Instead, it tasked the education commissioner, in collaboration with the New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA), to establish procedures for the review and approval of, and eligibility criteria for, school security project grants. Under the proposed regulations, the security grants will be awarded for the following purposes:

  1. Planned or completed projects to comply with Alyssa’s Law. Costs to comply with the law will be eligible for funding, provided they were incurred after Jan. 1, 2016.
  2. Planned school security projects to implement the provisions of N.J.S.A. 18A:7G-5.2. Under a 2016 state law, which was informed by the New Jersey School Security Task Force Report (July 2015), various security components must now be incorporated into the architectural design of newly constructed school facilities. That law also included a list of school security measures that must be implemented into both new and existing for existing buildings.

What this essentially means is that project grants will first be used to comply with Alyssa’s Law and will fund the full cost of panic alarms or alternative mechanisms approved by the department. The remaining school security project grant funds will then be used to comply with a 2016 law which sets forth a list of security measures required for new school construction or existing school buildings. The proposal explicitly prohibits the expenditure of any grant funds for any other security project until a district has complied fully with Alyssa’s Law. Following publication of the proposed regulations on the bond act, the department also issued preliminary guidelines to help districts prepare for the application process. The final application and corresponding final guidance will be released following adoption of the regulations.

Last November, the N.J. Schools Development Authority adopted special new rules for compliance with Alyssa’s Law while simultaneously soliciting public comments for readoption of those rules. The deadline for public comment on the proposals for both the bond act and Alyssa’s Law was Feb. 14, 2020. As of the date of publication of this article, neither proposal had been formally adopted. In January, the state announced that it would be borrowing the first $175 million of the $500 million authorized under the bond act. However, no funds have been disbursed to school districts to date.

All school districts are required to demonstrate compliance with Alyssa’s Law by Aug. 12, 2020, regardless of whether they intend to apply for a school security grant authorized by the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act.

Other Security Initiatives In addition to the bond act and Alyssa’s Law, a handful of other school security-related measures were approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Murphy in the previous legislative session:

Security Training for SubstitutesP.L.2019, c.480 (A-4151/S-2745) requires school security training for persons employed by public and nonpublic schools in a substitute capacity and for employees and volunteers of youth programs operated in school facilities. Prior state law only required full-time employees to receive training on school safety and security.

The new requirement becomes applicable in the 2020-2021 school year.

School Security AuditsP.L.2019, c.478 (A-4147/S-2744) requires school districts to conduct an audit of security features of district buildings, grounds, and communication systems using a standardized checklist and to submit the audit to the N.J. Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness and the N.J. Department of Education. The checklist will include items to assess the security features and security vulnerabilities of a school district’s school buildings and grounds. The checklist will also include items to assess the emergency notification systems used to facilitate notification of the community in the case of school emergencies. These audits will be kept confidential, and would not be deemed public records under the Open Public Records Act and common law. The audits, however, may be used for the purposes of allocating any state grants or loans made available for the purpose of school facility safety and security upgrades. The legislation also applies to nonpublic schools.

The law goes into effect beginning with the 2020-2021 school year.

Sharing School Maps with Law EnforcementP.L.2019, c.106 (S-2676/A-4112) requires boards of education and nonpublic schools to provide local law enforcement authorities with copies of blueprints and maps of schools and school grounds. If a school building is located in a municipality which does not have a municipal police department, copies of the blueprints and maps will be provided to an entity designated by the superintendent of the State Police.

The law went into effect in May 2019.

Class 3 SLEO Revisions P.L.2019, c.51 (A-1400/S-3245) makes various changes to the law governing Class III Special Law Enforcement Officers (SLEOs). The original Class III law was enacted in 2016 and established an additional category of SLEOs who provide security in schools and county colleges. This measure aimed to increase the pool of applicants who may serve as Class III officers, while maintaining the requirement that such officers complete a School Resource Officer (SRO) training program. Specifically, this legislation makes the following changes to the law:

  • Makes more law enforcement officers eligible to be appointed as a Class III SLEO. The law currently limits eligibility to an individual who served as a full-time officer in any municipality or county of this state, or as a member of the State Police.
  • Removes the requirement that the officer be retired from their law enforcement position within three years of appointment as a Class III special officer.
  • Establishes that Class III SLEOs may not be assigned to an extracurricular or after-school function at a school or college unless that assignment has first been made available to full-time members employed by the municipality, school, or county college.
  • Includes county vocational schools in the definition of a “county college” to clarify that Class III SLEOs are authorized to serve in county vocational schools.

These revisions went into effect on Oct. 1, 2019.

Retaining Surveillance FootageP.L.2019, c.47 (S-2715/A-4199) requires the state’s Attorney General, in consultation with the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, to develop a protocol establishing policies regarding the retention of video footage from school surveillance systems. The protocol would address matters such as the amount of time that the video footage may be retained; measures to be taken to limit access to the footage; and compliance with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The measure was signed into law on March 18, 2019 and went into effect immediately.

Expanding Safety Specialist EligibilityP.L.2018, c.100 (A-3765/S-2456) permits a superintendent to designate either an administrator or any other school employee with expertise in school safety and security as the district’s school safety specialist. Under the original 2017 law establishing the “New Jersey School Safety Specialist Academy,” a school district superintendent could only designate a “school administrator” as the school safety specialist for the district. This meant that the safety specialist had to hold an administrator’s certificate to serve in the specialist role. The amended law provides school districts greater flexibility to appoint the most appropriate staffer to serve as the designated school safety specialist, regardless if he or she holds an administrator certificate.

The changes took effect in August 2018.

The New Jersey School Boards Association regularly updates its members on legislative developments that affect boards of education in the weekly newsletter School Board Notes. All board members should receive that publication by email and, once a month, by mail.

Jonathan Pushman is an NJSBA legislative advocate.