Can anything be done to prevent the kind of violence that occurred in Newtown? The answer – the only answer – is “We have to try.” Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA Executive Director
On Dec. 14, 2012, a gunman blasted through a glass entryway at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and within minutes murdered 20 children and six adults.
As part of NJSBA’s Safe and Secure Schools Project, launched in response to the Newtown tragedy, then-President John Bulina appointed a School Security Task force in March 2013. The task force surveyed school districts on their security practices; reviewed current developments affecting the implementation and funding of security measures; identified best practices; and called for changes in statute and regulation that would promote student safety.
Composed of 15 local school board members and Association staff members, the task force received input from representatives of law enforcement, security, architecture, and higher education, as well as state officials who oversee school security. NJSBA’s then-Immediate Past President Ray Wiss and its Vice President for Finance Donald Webster Jr. (now NJSBA president) chaired the group.
“We hope that the report will serve as a resource to guide local boards of education as they make decisions critical to the security of their communities’ schools and the safety of their students,” wrote Wiss and Webster.
Experts who met with the task force during its deliberations included the following:
- Anthony Bland, then-state coordinator, Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning;
- Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., director of clinical training, Rutgers University Department of Psychology; director, Rutgers Social and Emotional Learning Laboratory; director, Collaborative, Rutgers’ Center for Community-Based Research, Service, and Public Scholarship;
- Anne Gregory, Ph.D., Rutgers University Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology;
- James E. Hyslop, president, SSC Security, Inc., Huntingdon, PA;
- William D. (Ted) Hopkins III, AIA, LEEDap, principal, Fraytak Veisz Hopkins Duthie PC;
- Brian J. Klimakowski, chief of police, Manchester Township Police Department, and New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police representative to the Governor’s School Security Task Force;
- Mark B. Miller, vice president, Pennsylvania School Boards Association, and vice president for Educational Technology, Nixle; and
- Gary Vermeire, then-coordinator of the Safe and Supportive Schools Unit of the New Jersey Department of Education.
Additional guidance came from members of the NJSBA staff, particularly Steve McGettigan, manager of policy services (the Uniform Memorandum of Agreement between school districts and local law enforcement), and Lou Schimenti, product and services specialist.
The final report of the NJSBA School Security Task Force includes 45 recommendations addressing local school district practices and state and federal requirements in six key areas: security personnel; school climate; policy and planning; communications; physical security; and finance. (The complete text of the recommendations begins on page 34.)
Key findings that led to the task force recommendations include:
- New Jersey has strong and effective statewide school security measures in place. For example, our state is one of only 10 that require periodic security drills throughout the school year. It requires crisis plans in each district, as well as agreements between school districts and local law enforcement agencies.
- Effective security planning must involve every element of the school community and the broader community.
- A safe and secure environment for our students requires not only protection from outside threats, but also the maintenance of a supportive and caring day-to-day internal school climate.
- A strong, positive relationship between school officials and law enforcement/emergency responders – built on mutual respect for, and adherence to their specific roles – is a cornerstone of an effective school security program.
- An information gap persists concerning the various types of security personnel employed in schools (e.g., School Resource Officers, private security, retired law enforcement, etc.) and their training, qualifications and functions, a situation that has led to public misperception and misunderstanding.
- “Deter, Slow and Detain” intruders, a foundation of effective physical security, requires a different set of building blocks for each school and school district. However, certain low-cost options are available to address the common concern of controlling entry into schools and classrooms.
- Funding for security upgrades and strategies has become extremely limited due to competing demands of the academic program and capital expenses, state regulation over non-instructional expenditures, the 2 percent tax levy cap, and the near elimination of federal funding for the employment of School Resource Officers.
A safe and secure school encompasses many elements, such as building design, a well-trained and well-informed staff, a cooperative relationship with law enforcement, and a nurturing environment. The task force recommendations can be best understood by looking at some of the factors that are relevant to a secure school.
Following Newtown, no single security strategy drew more attention than the placement of armed personnel in the schools. The discussion, however, begs for a clearer definition of the type of armed presence available to schools and its purpose – that is, building security, student safety, law enforcement, counseling, education, or a combination of all of these functions. In fact, a critical distinction must be made between armed non-police security and school resource officers (SROs) who, by law, receive special training in working with students.
The state Department of Education’s Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning supports school district consideration of SRO employment, while acknowledging its steep financial cost, Anthony Bland, then-state coordinator of the office told the NJSBA task force.
Among its April 2013 recommendations, the NJ SAFE Task Force on Gun Protection, Addiction, Mental Health and Families, and Education Safety, a select study group appointed by Gov. Christie after the Newtown tragedy, encouraged districts to consider the use of SROs:
“SROs perform many functions and are much more than armed security guards. Experience shows that SROs can earn trust among the student population so that students who would otherwise be reluctant to call the police feel comfortable sharing information of suspicious activity, before it escalates to violence.”
In a survey conducted by the NJSBA School Security Task Force in summer 2013, approximately 25 percent of respondents said they would hire additional security personnel if the district could afford it. The NJSBA study group recommends the use of SROs, who are part of local police forces, as the “preferred option” for a security presence in schools, but notes the financial obstacle it can present to districts.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, the average salary for New Jersey police and sheriff’s patrol officers in 2012 was $84,930.42 Various newspaper accounts about New Jersey school districts that considered SRO employment in 2013 cited annual salary and benefits ranging from $88,208 to $150,000, depending on the experience level of the individual officer.
In addition, the NJSBA task force points out that Special Law Enforcement Officers may provide the potential for a cost-effective alternative to the employment of SROs, without the drawbacks of non-police security. The New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police advocates a new designation of special officer who would be trained in working in a school environment.
Because of the variations in the size of school districts and local law enforcement agencies, building lay-outs, student populations and community attitudes, the NJSBA task force recommends that any decision on personnel hiring remain a local decision and should not be dictated by the state.
“There are very few troubled children who are violent, or become violent as adults…very few. But virtually all of our perpetrators have histories of abuse, neglect and turmoil. That’s why schools must nurture and strengthen all children.” – Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., Rutgers University
While the experts in security, building design and law enforcement who spoke to the NJSBA task force highlighted physical security enhancements and strategies, they also stressed the importance of a healthy school culture and climate. This is critical because, in most school shootings, ranging from Jonesboro, Arkansas (March 1998) and Jefferson County, Colorado (April 1999) to Centennial, Colorado (December 2013), the perpetrators were students and, typically, their actions extended from their experience in school.
While the specific circumstances that drive school shooters to commit their crimes differ, the painfully obvious commonality this: They were troubled individuals.
The NJSBA task force finds that the schools’ role in addressing the emotional health of children has grown in importance as mental health services diminish in other sectors of government. Since the economic crisis of 2008, for example, 30 states have reduced their mental health budgets. The cuts came at a time of rising unemployment, loss of private health insurance and other fall-out from the great recession.
Dr. Maurice Elias warns of the negative consequences on learning that can result when schools cut back on support services. “[W]hen we take away from our schools the specialists that help our kids deal with mental health issues, we allow those issues – health issues, violence and safety issues, drug issues – [to] simply collapse into the academics…” He advises, “…the greatest safety for the greatest number of individuals comes from a safe, caring, supportive, academically challenging, healthy school culture and climate, where mental health needs are met, as well as educational needs; where troubled children are embraced…”
Anne Gregory, Ph.D., of the Rutgers University Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology told the NJSBA task force, “School climate is as powerful a predictor of [academic success] as the demographics of the school. Unlike demographics, school climate can be changed.”
The task force made nine recommendations in the area of school climate, including urging school districts to engage in school climate assessments to ensure that students have safe, secure and supportive learning environments. Its final report also provides climate assessment resources, examples of district programs designed to enhance school climate and organizations that could provide critical support.
“Research clearly indicates that these attacks are rarely sudden impulsive acts. In most cases, others knew of the attacks…prior to them occurring. Most of the attackers engaged in some sort of behavior prior to the incident that caused concern to others.” – Brian J. Klimakowski, N.J. Association of Chiefs of Police representative to the Governor’s School Security Task Force.
The NJSBA task force finds that two-way communication is essential for boards of education to –
- Build support for school security plans;
- Clarify the responsibilities of students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members;
- Implement and update the plans as needed; and
- Keep various constituent groups informed in the case of an emergency.
Significantly, the task force notes research showing that, in most school shootings, other people knew about the attack before it occurred. The NJSBA study group also cites the success of 24-hour, multi-platform anonymous tip lines in averting incidents of violence.
“…there is a difference between being a soft target and a hard target. Districts can help themselves by making the intruder know that there will be some resistance when they approach a school if they choose that venue to harm others. From there, if they won’t be deterred, we have to slow down and detain an intruder. Now this could include secure vestibules, self-locking corridor doors, intrusion locksets, additional security personnel. Staff must prepare by being diligent in their behaviors dealing with visitors and guests. This will be the new normal.” – William D. (“Ted”) Hopkins, AIA.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School had security equipment and procedures in place to control visitor access. The assailant, however, was able to penetrate the building by shooting through the glass panel adjacent to the entry doors in the school vestibule; he gained access to classrooms in a matter of seconds.
In his presentation to the NJSBA Task Force, architect William D. (Ted) Hopkins III provided his research on school shootings and shared his communication with law enforcement, equipment manufacturers and school officials, including Dr. Janet Robinson, the superintendent of schools in Newtown, Connecticut.
“Under the conditions described by the superintendent of Newtown, we’ve learned that minutes count,” said Hopkins. “She said that the entire incident was over in four minutes…four minutes. This didn’t last for half an hour or an hour. It happened in four minutes.”
“Deter, slow, and detain” is a major tenet that guides physical security enhancements, procedures and staffing. Among sources cited by the NJSBA task force is the New Jersey Department of Education’s 429-page School Safety and Security Manual: Best Practices Guidelines. Available only to designated school district officials, the 2006 publication provides extensive advice on target hardening, as well as threat-specific recommendations and information on retrofitting existing school buildings.
Target-hardening enhancements include technological and architectural changes that range widely in cost. Three low-cost options, cited by Hopkins, include upgrading classroom door hardware, redesigning entryways, and applying ballistic film exterior glass as an alternative to installing bullet-proof glass.
Training in School Security
No matter what security equipment and processes are in place, they won’t be effective without a well-trained staff. For local school boards’ reference, the task force report lists multiple training resources available at the local, county, state and federal levels.
NJSBA will host three upcoming regional meetings on the NJSBA School Security Task Force’s findings and recommendations. The program in central New Jersey will be held Monday, Jan. 12, at North Brunswick Township High School; a program will be held in southern New Jersey at the Burlington County Police and Fire Academy in Westampton Township on Tuesday, Jan. 27, and a northern New Jersey program is scheduled for Thursday Feb. 19 at the Montville Township High School. All programs are from 7 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. Registration information can be found in the Dec. 9 issue of online School Board Notes.