Schools Are Supposed to Be the Safest Places That Children Can Be
There are no words to describe the impact of the shocking February 14th tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Florida. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims who needlessly lost their lives that day in the shooting.
I’m writing here today to share the conversations that I have had with school leaders around the state as we have spoken about school security in the wake of this most recent appalling school shooting. The Association’s Executive Committee will address the broad topics of school safety, mental health and gun safety at its April Executive Committee meeting.
Americans, particularly parents of school-aged children, have felt more vulnerable since the horrifying December 14, 2012, tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 26 individuals.
People then began to question if that tragedy could happen in a quiet residential community like Newtown, could it happen anywhere? Colleagues, it is with a very, heavy heart we have learned that a school shooting can occur anywhere, at any time. And that is unacceptable!
Schools are supposed to be the safest places that children can be – not the places they have to run from!
The challenge for us as school leaders and our communities is to balance the safety of students while allowing them the freedom they need to learn. In today’s schools, it is standard procedure to have locked doors, controlled access, and lockdown drills. Visitors to the school must press a button to be buzzed in through the outer set of school doors to enter the building. Visitors are required to show photo identification if the office does not recognize them.
What happened in Florida is an unbelievable tragedy that will likely cause all of us to be even more proactive in our approach to school security. But we need to remember that no security system is invulnerable. Schools, like homes and businesses, are subject to outside influences beyond their control.
It’s important to note that New Jersey has been at the forefront of school security ever since the events at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. NJASA conducted a School Security Conference immediately following that tragedy to bring educators and law enforcement officials together to address the then critical need to examine school security procedures. That conference had been in planning since the shooting of elementary students and a teacher by children in Arkansas in 1998. A second conference followed in 2000, and a third was conducted in 2001.
NJASA reinstituted a School Security Conference on March 13, 2013 to again achieve the goals of communication and enhanced preparation. That conference featured presentations by Dr. Janet Robinson, Superintendent of the Newtown Public Schools; Edward Dickson, Director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security; Anthony Bland, Director of the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning; as well as representation from local law enforcement officials.
The focus on New Jersey school security following national events was brought by elected officials, Attorneys General, County Prosecutors, Commissioners of Education, school leaders and staff members; as well as by local citizens and parents. Agreements between law enforcement and school officials were established, modified and strengthened over the years following the Columbine tragedy.
Of course, doing nothing following the February 14, 2018, is tragedy is not an option. Chief education officers, law enforcement, students and community members throughout the state are explaining and reinforcing existing security procedures and now evaluating what could be done to avoid a situation like this in the future. Implementing a prison-like security system is not the answer. In spite of the certainty of absolute security for children that we all would like, that is not a realistic expectation. Schools remain an open environment. We see this as students are on playgrounds, athletic fields, and walking or being bused to and from school. They remain at schools late into the evenings and on weekends in auditoriums, gymnasiums, athletic fields and classrooms.
As I noted earlier, our challenge is to balance the safety of students while allowing them the freedom they need to learn.
- Reinforce the work of the School Security Task Force critical to the ongoing security of students.
- Examine and strengthen communication protocols already established between schools and law enforcement officials.
- Focus on technological advances that can promote communications in times of crisis.
- Establish forums and vehicles for sharing best practices in security to local law enforcement and education personnel.
- Require that school security personnel who may be armed be placed under the direct authority of the local police chief.
- Promote the establishment of a local tip line which can facilitate anonymous reporting and a prompt response to potential trouble.
- Examine ways in which community mental health services can be strengthened;
- Examine how citizens can address and mitigate the culture of violence that permeates our nation.
- Limit access to assault weapons and large capacity magazines.
School leaders will continue their work with staff, parents and community leaders to establish school climates that promote respect. Our challenges, however, require that a greater coalition of individuals, groups and institutions be brought together to succeed in limiting the threats of violence that our youth face not just in the schools, but on the streets, they walk and the neighborhoods they live in.
 On behalf of NJASA in winter 2013, I appeared before The New Jersey SAFE Task Force on Gun Protection, Addiction, Mental Health and Families, and Education Safety, commonly referred to as "The NJ SAFE Task Force” and recommended the following nine recommendations, which remain to be accomplished.