By Chris Lundy, Jennifer Peacock and Kimberly Bosco
OCEAN COUNTY – Security has always been on the minds of school officials, and with every school shooting, the need for it is underscored more and more. A year after 17 people were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, local superintendents say that there have been added security personnel and investments to make the buildings better defended.
Superintendent David Healy said that there is about $5 million in security improvements that were included in the referendum that voters recently approved. This includes camera surveillance that is able to be accessed by police officers.
There will also be a security vestibule in every school, he said. Anyone who comes into the building will have to conduct business with a receptionist behind glass. Any packages would be left there. The only time an adult would be in the building would be for something scheduled, like a parent-teacher meeting.
At the end of last summer, the township expanded the number of Class III special officers from four to 19. This allowed them to have one armed officer in each of the town’s 14 public schools, one at the Donovan Catholic campus, and four substitutes. Since Donovan Catholic/Saint Joseph is a private school, they were paying the officer’s salary.
They were placed there not only for security, but to get to know the kids and be able to address any issues before they grow, Police Chief Mitch Little had said at the time.
Class IIIs are recently retired officers who have the training, but not the higher salary or benefits, allowing them to be a more affordable option.
Additionally, there are safety officers employed by the district, Healy said. “At any time, our buildings have at least one gun in it. Sometimes two. Sometimes three. It sounds harsh but it’s a reality,” he said. “Parents want to know ‘If someone comes in to hurt our kids, will there be someone there who can stop them with lethal force?’”
He complimented the officers on all their training, particularly the active shooter drills that were conducted.
The key is deterrence. “If someone wants to rob your house, they’re going to go to the house that doesn’t have two dogs,” he said.
Six elementary, two middle and two high schools comprise the Jackson Township School District. Nearly 9,000 public school students are educated – and protected – in this 100.6-square-mile municipality.
“We talk about security constantly – every day in our schools and at the administrative level, at every board meeting and during every budget discussion,’’ Superintendent of Schools Stephen Genco said. “We know that in order to keep up, we need to keep investing in the people, training and infrastructure that will create the safest schools we can.’’
The district is in its final phase of a multi-year project to install security vestibules in its schools. The doors are locked at all times, and visitors must be buzzed in. Visitors are more easily screened, and are forbidden to enter the building during students’ arrival and dismissal. Only those with verifiable appointments or business in the school can enter.
Security cameras dot the inside and outside of all district buildings, and are accessible to Jackson Township Police. Not only does the district have an agreement with the police to regularly patrol the school parking lots, but police hold off-hours training exercises to prepare for school-based emergencies.
“Although there are many protocols and measures in place we recognize that continued focus on safety and security is crucial,’’ Genco said. “We work with law enforcement to identify any and all options that will strengthen our school security and provide a physically and emotionally safe environment for all children to learn.”
Students and staff practice drills monthly as well. They are trained in ALICE – Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate – the most used civilian active shooter response training in the country.
Voters also approved a measure this past November that approved a $411,611 tax levy increase to hire six additional security guards to join the School Resource Officers at the high schools (and who do visit the other eight schools) and other trained security personnel.
“The addition of these six security guards was always part of our broader security plan, but I think it’s fair to say the tragedy in Parkland accelerated those plans,’’ Genco said. “We knew we needed this personnel to provide optimum security coverage for all 10 schools, so we pushed forward, asked for voter approval, and it was successful.’’
Manchester Township Schools educate a little more than 2,800 students in its three elementary schools, middle and high school, in addition to the Regional Day School in Jackson. The district receives about 150 high school students from Lakehurst Borough, who go to school at Lakehurst Elementary School, a K-8 institution and separate from the Manchester district.
Manchester School’s Superintendent David Trethaway said constructing security features into schools is a process that can’t be done all at once. Like Jackson Township, Manchester schools have gradually added security vestibules to each school. The change was a jolt at first, especially for parents who were used to breezing in to see the principal or visit a child’s classroom. But in this post-Columbine, and now post-Parkland world, they do understand.
“Every time there is crisis, you think, ‘That can never happen here.’ You have to be prepared,” Trethaway said. “…But you have to find a balance. You don’t want [the schools] to be a prison. We make sure the students are safe, but that this is still school.”
In addition to security vestibules, the high school does have a School Resource Officer. Each school practices a different security drill – bomb scare, active shooter, fire, lockdown, among others – each month, and teachers and staff are ALICE trained.
Not only have schools been steadily bolstering their security measures in just the last year since Parkland, but some schools, such as the Southern Regional School District, have been doing so for much longer.
Superintendent of Southern Regional schools Craig Henry provided Jersey Shore Online with data on a five-year financial trend for operational security funding, going back to 2014:
- 2014-15: $199,197
- 2015-16: $209,000
- 2016-17: $245,000
- 2017-18: $252,000
- 2018-19: $296,000
This data shows a clear increase each year in the amount of money spent on security during the school year from 2014 to now. Henry noted that these figures do not include infrastructure spending that would incorporate security measures such as “automated external doors, new internal doors, surveillance and communication technology and professional development.”
While the largest increase in funding happening between the 2017-2018 school year and the 2018-2019 school year, this was actually not a result of the tragedy at Parkland.
“The $44,000 increase in this year’s budget was actually planned for prior to the Parkland tragedy as we assemble that portion of the budget in November/December” of the year before, said Henry.
However, the focus on security continues to trend upward.
Henry said that members of the administration “meet on a regular basis with our security personnel and the local law enforcement liaisons to Southern to review our current practices, risk assessments, emergency response readiness and to also share pertinent information about current events in the community that are relevant to school security.”
Prior to the start of the 2018-2019 school year, the Southern Regional School District approved the hiring of four Class III officers; three for the high school and one for the middle school.
After two of the district’s security guards retired, they also approved the hiring of four part-time security guards to patrol both schools.
Superintendent Triantafillos Parlapanides said that his district’s schools have been increasing security regularly, and thanked the Board of Education, Berkeley Mayor Carmen Amato, and Chief Karin DiMichele for their support.
They already had an officer in each school, and have added another at the high school, he said. These are regular officers, not Class IIIs. He wanted officers to be younger, and closer to the age of the students.
Some of the improvements are to the physical building, like the new public address system and cameras. There are shades over the windows. A film has been put over all the glass to make them shatter proof. They’re not bulletproof, but they slow down an attacker. Someone would have to break the window to get inside, giving students and staff time to escape and the officer time to respond.
He said he is looking into ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training for the district. According to the company that does the training, ALICE provides a more “proactive” response to an attack than just lockdown.
One thing that’s good about the online generation is that they put their whole lives on social media, he said. Fellow students know that if they see any red flags, that they should tell an authority figure.
“You can never be secure enough. Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy to bring awareness,” he said.