The first priority for any school leader is to keep their students and staff safe. 

In the Belleville Public Schools, a tight-knit town located nine miles outside of New York City and five miles from Newark, Superintendent Dr. Richard Tomko has taken a more unconventional approach when it comes to securing the district’s 14 school buildings and facilities. 

The Belleville Public School District serves nearly 5,000 students in preschool through 12th grade and employs nearly 800 faculty and staff members – many of whom live in town. 

When Tomko became superintendent eight years ago, the first step he took in addressing school safety was renaming the department to Safety Services. This was a small step toward achieving his vision to incorporate some of the security practices more common in private sector operations, such as the Met Life Stadium where Tomko worked as a young adult.

The superintendent admits that optics are everything. When it comes to the way his security guards present themselves, the uniform style is intended to be both professional and approachable. In the cooler months, the team wears suit jackets and ties and in the warmer months, they wear a less formal collared shirt. While all Safety Services team members carry guns, they are worn discreetly. Tomko sees no benefit to flaunting weapons in schools. 

Over the past few years, the district’s Safety Services has evolved into a department of more than 30 employees composed mostly of retired law enforcement from Belleville, Newark and other nearby communities. While their experience is key, so is their attitude about the job. “My goal has been to embed the safety services team into the fabric of the school, like a family,” Tomko said.

The team also has access to two patrol vehicles, which allows Dave Rubin, acting director of safety services/district compliance officer, and another officer to patrol all schools. Rubin, a retired homicide detective in Newark, oversees the department. He also maintains a close working relationship with the Belleville Police Department. 

In addition to all mandated training, the Belleville Safety Services team receives professional development in customer service as well as Krav Maga training. Krav Maga is a form of self-defense and physical training first developed by the Israeli army in the 1940s. Tomko believes that the customer service training, delivered by a third party, helps to diffuse situations before they escalate. “Parents can be myopic. When they come to our schools, it’s usually because their student is sick or maybe they’ve gotten into trouble. By training our guards and frontline office staff in customer service, we can quickly de-escalate a situation by speaking to the parents with sensitivity and empathy. We treat people the way we want to be treated,” he said. 

On any given day, the guards are positioned in key locations throughout each building where they can engage with students, families and staff. The primary responsibility of the Safety Services team is to be proactive and build relationships with students. At the Hornblower Early Childhood Center building, guards welcome the district’s youngest learners at the front door each morning and walk them to their classrooms. Belleville prioritizes students building relationships with the guards from an early age to remove the negative stigma sometimes associated with police. This approach is paying off as the students get older and form trusted relationships with the guards, which has led to the students feeling comfortable reporting concerns or sharing their personal struggles.

“Our guards dress up as Santa’s helper during the holiday season and they coach in the community. They come to school events on their own time, and they truly care about our kids,” said Tomko.

When there’s trust between the security guards and students, it opens the lines of communication for talking about anything from what happened this weekend, to sports, relationship struggles and reporting concerns about other students. “The students see guards as confidantes, and that’s when we know we’re succeeding,” Tomko said.

Kids will be kids. There are also moments when the guards will step in and break up fights. The guards are more than equipped to handle these situations while also working to minimize any threats to the schools.

Belleville does not have metal detectors in its schools. Tomko claims they create delays and send the wrong message to students by militarizing the educational atmosphere. When it comes to innovative security tools, Tomko speaks highly of a ballistic bookshelf from ProtectedEd Rooms that can also function as a barricade in the event of an active shooter or other serious threat. Belleville is the first school district in the country to phase in the uniquely designed bookshelf, which can be rolled into place to secure a room in 30 seconds.

It’s clear that the Belleville guards take their work to heart. One guard recounted a time when he was attending a wrestling match for his son, a student in a nearby district. At the match, he recognized a Belleville student who was preparing to wrestle. The two acknowledged each other with a wave. Rather than leaving after his son’s match ended, the guard stayed and watched the Belleville student wrestle. During that student’s match, he struggled and lost his temper. He looked up with frustration to see the guard looking back at him. The guard nodded at him and waited for him to get off the mat so the two could talk. The student thanked the guard for sticking around. 

The Belleville Board of Education is highly supportive of the security initiatives, and the emphasis on building rapport between the students and the security personnel. “Our safety services team does an incredible job keeping our buildings secure and our students and staff members safe,” said Luis Muñiz, Belleville board president. “These men and women play an important role in the day-to-day operations of the district, and our students and families know they are more than just security in the buildings. Dr. Tomko and the board’s philosophy has always been to utilize their strong interpersonal skills to build relationships in the community.” 

Lori Perlow is public information officer for the Haddon Township School District Communications Consortium.