BRICK – What is being done to make schools safer from shooters? Are any new laws being put forth at the state level to improve school safety? How is the public being protected from potential shooters at large gatherings, such as Summerfest or sporting events? Where will the money come from to enhance the safety of the actual school buildings?
These and other questions were posed to local and state officials at a Student Town Hall Meeting held at Brick Memorial High School one morning while school was in session to talk about school security in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting that resulted in the death of 17 students and staff members.
A panel consisting of NJ State Senator and former Governor Richard J. Codey, Brick Mayor John G. Ducey, Police Chief James Riccio, Board of Education President Stephanie Wholrab, township council members and school administrators came to listen, but some made brief comments during the assembly that was attended by the entire student body of Brick Memorial High School and about 150 students from Brick High School.
A core group of eight Brick Memorial student leaders spearheaded the assembly, which they said would be an alternate to school walkouts held across the country on March 14 to make a statement on gun safety.
“Our students have serious questions and concerns,” said Brick Memorial Principal Dr. Richard Caldes, before introducing Board of Education President Wholrab, who thanked the student leaders for being role models.
“Always remember, you have to be the change you want to see in the world,” Wholrab said. “We believe in you.”
Mayor Ducey said he hoped the students would eventually settle down in Brick and raise their children here. “In 15 years we will hopefully not be talking about the same situation. We take your ideas seriously. We want you to be safe,” he said.
Senator Codey said the common thread in school shootings across the country is they are almost always committed in suburban settings by students who are outcasts.
“Are you thinking about reaching out to people who are outside the mainstream, who are
isolated and not part of the ‘in’ group?” he asked the students.
With teen suicides up 70 percent over the past 10 years, Codey said he never even heard of a teen suicide when he was growing up and living on the third floor of his family funeral home. He said there could be a connection between teen suicides and social media.
“Before social media, kids could go to the safety and comfort of their homes, but now they go home and they see on social media that someone is having a party and they weren’t invited,” he said.
Codey asked if there were any questions from the audience. One boy asked how to get one side to respect the other.
“What are you doing in your government position to get both sides to hear each other out and come to a conclusion?” he asked.
Codey said he doesn’t think about whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat when talking about gun control.
“We can only control what goes on in New Jersey,” he said. “As a state we’ve done a lot, but on a national level not everyone thinks like us. They think having guns in the home is normal; they believe in it,” he said.
They talked about Republican Governor Rick Scott of Florida supporting a new law that raises the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21 from 18 after the Parkland shooting.
“That was a big step in Florida,” Codey said. “We already have that law in New Jersey.”
One of the eight students who organized the Town Hall meeting said that during her four years of high school there have been 84 school shootings, “and since I wrote this speech, there have been four more.”
She then read the names of the students who were killed in Parkland, followed by a moment of silence.
Another of the student leaders said that Brick Memorial has never had a shooting, “and we have to make sure it never happens,” she said. Small changes could help prevent a shooting, she said, such as making sure you don’t let someone into the school as you are exiting.
“We need to have each others’ backs. Small actions can make a difference,” she said. “Be kind to people. Together we are stronger. The world needs love more now than ever.”
The student leaders had a common message: Right now the world is listening and the time is ripe for gun safety laws.
One student asked Brick Police Chief James Riccio what makes New Jersey gun laws stricter than other states.
Riccio said that at 18, one could apply for a firearms ID card, which triggers a background check on the applicant’s criminal history, which would show any and all arrests for drug use, domestic violence and more.
“As the police chief, I can deny you that card,” he said.
At 21, an individual could apply for a handgun, and a background check could once again result in a denial, he said.
What the background checks do not show are whether an individual has been evaluated for any psychological issues, Riccio said.
“That’s where we’re missing the boat. Other states need to strengthen laws, but we need a database to access mental evaluations which would allow me to deny access to weapons,” he said.
Students asked Mayor Ducey what is being done on a local level to make the schools safer. He said there are now armed security guards (all retired police officers) in the high schools at all times, and the administration and the PBA are looking into getting Special 3 officers into the schools as a safety measure.
Also in the planning stages are improvements to school vestibules where security cameras could “verify who you are as an extra layer of protection,” he said.
One student asked Board President Wholrab where the money would come from for the extra security.
“We’re doing the budget right now, and we have some wonderful ideas from [experts], but the most important thing for you all to know is our priority is your safety,” she said. “We will figure out where the money will come from, don’t you worry about that.”
Senator Codey was asked by a student why it has taken so many school shootings for legislators to take action to prevent school shootings.
Codey said that change takes time. He also said the idea of arming teachers is “absurd…we should have no guns in schools.”
The student leaders asked Senator Codey to bring two signed petitions back to Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker. The petitions ask for a ban on assault weapons and not to arm teachers. Each of the petitions had over 1,000 signatures of students and staff.
“No one talked to us about the [Parkland] shooting unless we brought it up. We need to start talking about this. We all have a voice and we need to use it,” said one of the student leaders. “Our voices can break down the barriers to make this change possible.”