School officials place premium on security

Staff Writer

The New Jersey School Security Task Force issued its final report in early July which includes a list of suggestions that are aimed at improving school safety and security for students, staff members and the buildings of New Jersey’s public and nonpublic schools.

The task force was created in August 2013 by the administration of Gov. Chris Christie. Its final report presents 42 recommendations after assessing the current status of school safety and security across the state.

The recommendations suggest embracing a stronger police presence on school grounds at various times, improving school security practices and enhancing emergency responses. The suggestions are intended to assist school district administrators as they seek to enhance school safety on a daily basis.

John J. Marciante Jr., superintendent of the Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District, said it is hard to write a report that fits all of the different types of schools and communities in New Jersey.

“When you are a task force and you have around 600 school districts in a state as diverse as New Jersey, it is really hard to come up with recommendations that fit everyone,” Marciante said. “A lot of school districts have different levels of security that have already been developed and implemented.”

One recommendation that has received a lot of attention is the suggestion to have police officers who have been trained to work in a school setting on school grounds at all times. Some schools already have a School Resource Officer (SRO) who is employed by the local police department and who has received that training.

Marciante said having a police presence on school grounds might not be appropriate for all districts. He said the Manalapan-Englishtown district involves the police in its safety practices, but does not require a police presence on school grounds on a daily basis.

In other school districts, SROs and other security personnel have been hired and are present on school grounds.

Charles Sampson, superintendent of the Freehold Regional High School District, said the issue of safety can come down to finances.

“In our case, SROs are available in two of our six high schools, but not in the other four,” he said. “That is a financial decision between school districts and municipalities because there is obviously a cost to that.”

Sampson said the task force made recommendations that are the best possible scenario for schools, “but that optimum isn’t always realistic for some districts for a variety of reasons.”

Ultimately, he said, the task force did a good job of being clear in its report which was aimed at improving security in New Jersey’s schools.

“Most of the recommendations make sense to me,” Sampson said. “I think continuously refining your practices around your school security procedures is critical of schools in this day and age.”

Members of the task force worked with law enforcement agencies and visited schools in order to develop recommendations to boost school safety.

Stephen Genco, superintendent of the Jackson School District, said he was particularly pleased with the task force report.

“I was happy looking through the recommendations because a lot of things in there, we are already doing,” he said. “When the task force visited our district this past year, the members were very pleased at what we were doing.”

The Jackson School District has security on school grounds, including SROs who are tied directly to the Jackson Police Department, and who work with the school staff, Genco said.

“I think the overriding thing is communication with your local police department and having a healthy relationship with them,” he said.

Marciante said although the Manalapan- Englishtown Regional School District does not require a police presence on a daily basis, it does maintain a strong relationship with the police and involves the department in safety practices.

“Our director of security works with Manalapan and Englishtown in terms of coordinating police presence in some of our drills,” he said. “When we are having a drill they know and if we are actually having a real lockdown they are informed immediately. I think we have an excellent relationship.”

Another focus of the task force’s report is security at school entrances. Suggestions include specific screening systems at school entrances, vehicle and package inspections, searches of persons and bags, and metal detectors.

Marciante, for example, said that in the Manalapan-Englishtown district, no one is admitted into a school who has not made an appointment to be there, whether that is a parent or an employee of a maintenance firm.

“Our district does not allow anyone in a building without making an appointment first,” he said. “If we are not aware that you are coming, we are not going to let you in.”

Sampson said that in the Freehold Regional High School District, schools have one entrance open during the school day and that entrance is monitored by cameras and security personnel.

“From our standpoint, the main entrances are critical and you have to secure those areas” he said. “But in terms of specific screening, we do not have that in our high schools and do not plan to implement a system like that at this time.”

To practice emergency situations, Sampson said administrators plan safety drills with local law enforcement agencies, with which the district has a strong relationship. He said it is important for police in the six municipalities where the high schools are located to be familiar with each building.

“Whatever situation arises in school is a unique situation, so you have to have an understanding of how schools respond,” Sampson said. “We think that goes a long way in helping the school and the community being as prepared as possible for whatever happens.”

Genco said the Jackson School District has made its school entrances more secure by adding double doors, cameras and buzzer systems. The schools practice safety drills with a police presence.

Genco said he particularly agrees with the task force’s recommendation which suggests students and staff members carry proper identification on them at all times.

“In an emergency situation, when you are trying to identify who belongs and who does not, I think IDs are certainly very, very relevant,” he said.