Newtown Shooting Spurs NJ School Security Reaction
School districts in the region respond to Connecticut massacre by reviewing safety procedures.
At 9:30 a.m. Friday, 26 bells were rung, one each for the lives taken in the hallways and classrooms of Sandy Hook Elementary School during the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, Conn.
The Friday before Christmas, typically a day reserved for holiday parties and cheer, marked a week since what has been labeled the second deadliest school shooting in America.
Just days and even hours after the shooting, school districts in Morris and Somerset counties sprung into action, developing plans to communicate with parents and reaching out to police officers about how to make schools more safe.
"Right now, the crucial thing for school boards to do is to look at the security procedures in place," said Frank Belluscio, communications director for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
Several school boards have already begun doing this, Belluscio said.
In Bloomingdale, a K-8 Passaic County district, the superintendent said he immediately reached out to Board President Lauren Grecco and law enforcement officials to develop a plan for adding more security cameras to the schools. Also in Passaic County, Wayne's 14 schools had uniformed and plain-clothes officers maintaining a presence in hallways and at school entrances.
Police officers were posted at school districts throughout the state Monday, some officers stationed to stay at schools for the entire week.
"Until some normalcy is returned to the classroom setting, we will do our best to maintain a visible presence during both drop-off and pick-up," the Morris Township Police Department said in a release to parents last weekend.
"Normalcy" was a word used by many school administrators, including those in Madison, as they tried to hold their school communities together in healing. The communities at-large came together to heal as well, hosting vigils and rememberance ceremonies. Mayors throughout the state signed a letter urging the federal government to take action on gun control laws.
By Monday, the NJSBA began planning a conference for school administrators, teachers and parents to learn more about ways to maintain a safe and secure school environment.
Belluscio said the conference, which is being held in January at either The College of New Jersey or Rider University, will bring together psychologists, state police officers, hospital security personnel, a representative from the insurance industry and more. Belluscio said his hope is that individuals can walk away from the conference knowing that the state does have strong security procedures in place for schools, but that there is always room to improve.
"In New Jersey, we have very strong security processes, but so does Connecticut," he said. "So I think it's time to review and see where improvements can be made."
As the week came to a close, most school districts already had serious discussions about security measures for the future.
In Bridgewater, $30,000 was earmarked by the board of education for increased security at Bridgewater-Raritan High School in the 2013-14 school year. While the money was discussed by the board's Finance Committee prior to the shooting, Superintendent Michael Schilder has also asked the school board to consider hiring an armed officer for the school.
Some school districts took the opportunity this week, during the final school board meetings of the year for many, to simply explain the security procedures that were already in place or recently updated. Bernards Township Police Chief Brian Bobowicz told parents the school's lockdown procedure was recently updated and in Chatham school officials assured parents that the district's emergency plan is fresh but constantly under review.
School leaders have not been the only ones to question security. Several parents expressed their concerns to the Hopatcong Board of Education about the ease in which someone could enter the Hudson Maxim School. In Bridgewater, parent Rebecca Brown said she was concerned that even with heightened school security, a person could get into a school and cause harm.
The Sandy Hook school shooting has not only prompted district officials to be more responsive to school violence, but other incidents as well.
Hillsborough police continued their investigation of graffiti that appeared to threaten students that was sprayed on a shed. The graffiti message read, "We are watching you, kiddies."
Police stepped up patrols at one local high school after pranks and rumors spread about weapons in school. Montville school officials sent an alert to middle school parents about alleged remarks made by a classmate that seemed to concern other students. Kinnelon school officials sent parents a Textcaster message explaining that the high school was evacuated because a student pulled a fire alarm and that students were not in danger at any point.
What may have seemed like smaller incidents before the shooting have been communicated more by school districts in the past week. Still, many school officials said they are not able to disclose precise details about their security systems and procedures. Kinnelon Police Lt. John Schwartz said the department has received such informational requests.
"We've had a lot of concerned parents calling, asking what our school security plans are. We're not sharing our strategies for dealing with certain things for what we feel are obvious reasons."
Belluscio said this likely would not be changed unless a state policy was revised.
"I think, really, it would have to be something that security experts would handle," he said. "The public has the right to know, but we have to safeguard students too."
Although school safety is always at the minds of administrators, educators, and, most of all, parents, it is possible that school environments may have become more sensitive this week as a result of what happened in Newtown.
"A kid pulling a fire alarm is not always a news-maker," Schwartz said. "This week, it was."