GLEN RIDGE, NJ — A panel of experts addressed the best practices to ensure the safety of students and staff members in Essex County schools when the Essex County School Board Association (ECSBA) met on Wednesday at the Glen Ridge Country Club for its first meeting of the school year.

The panel consisted of West Essex Regional Schools Superintendent of Schools Damion Macioci; North Caldwell Police Chief Mark Deuer; David Rubin, Director of Safety Services for Belleville Public Schools; Louis Cammarata, Special Investigator-Regional Planner for the New Jersey Department of Education Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning; and Valerie Wilson, Business Administrator for Newark Public Schools. 

Judith Amorim-Dias, president of the ECSBA and a member of the West Essex Regional Board of Education, said that the county board wanted to kick of the school year by prioritizing the topic of safety and security within the public schools and communities.

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“We believe safety and security is paramount to the health and wellness of our students and our communities,” she said. “In accordance with Commissioner Repollet's efforts to ‘strengthen teaching, leading and learning,' we must provide safe and secure communities in order to increase educational equity for all students across Essex County.”

According to Amorim-Dias, more than 70 attendees networked to gather “free state and local resources to encourage local school board members to, in turn, further disseminate to their local school districts and municipalities.” She said she hopes the panelists and attendees found “tremendous value in the diverse information shared.”

“We are very fortunate to have the collaborative and cohesive support of the State of New Jersey Department of Education, mayors, police chiefs and police foundations within Essex County in hopes of achieving equity for our students and residents,” she said.

In addition to board of education members from most of the Essex County school districts, North Caldwell Mayor Joseph Alessi, Roseland Councilwoman Jean Perrotti, Essex County Superintendent of Schools Joseph Zarra (representing Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr.), Glen Ridge Superintendent of Schools Dirk Phillips, Essex County Vocational Technology Superintendent Dr. James Pedersen, North Caldwell Police Foundation Co-President Ken Tilton and members of the Newark Office of Emergency Management were also in attendance.

Moderating the discussion of behalf of the association was Ray Pinney from New Jersey School Boards Association.

“One size does not fit all,” said Pinney. “The diversity is tremendous in Essex County and what may work in Roseland may not work in Glen Ridge, for example.”

Macioci began the panel discussion by stating that the “health and safety of students and staff is of paramount importance.”

“Those in our buildings and on our campus need to feel safe and supported at all times,” he said. “At West Essex, we are diligent in our approach to safety and security and work collaboratively with our professional staff and local law enforcement. With the support of the West Essex Board of Education, we have taken several proactive measures to protect our students, staff and visitors."

Macioci stressed that as a superintendent, he relies on excellent working relationships with not only the local North Caldwell Police Department, but with the three other sending districts to the regional school districts—Roseland, Essex Fells and Fairfield—as well.

He also acknowledged the tremendous support and generosity of the North Caldwell Police Foundation and North Caldwell Municipal Alliance, which are currently funding upcoming assemblies to the student body and district parents regarding the dangers of vaping.

According to Macioci, the West Essex district’s four School Safety Specialists go above and beyond, “taking it all extremely seriously, this is an important role in the district,” he said. He also stated that the front office staff has received professional development regarding the
screening of all visitors during school hours, and all coaches and event staff members have received training for extra-curricular and special events as well. 

Working through “Sandy Hook Promise” and the STOP the School Violence Act, the district is planning on providing student-based assemblies, such as "Start With Hello" and "Say Something," Macioci said.

Other security measures currently in place include standardized keys, visitor procedures to track and screen those entering the building, telephones in all classrooms and cameras in hallways and throughout the campus. Macioci stressed that it is imperative to conduct unannounced, mandatory drills that are realistic in between classes and during lunch, when the students are not in a structured environment.

Panelists also addressed cyber security, noting that firewalls, anti-virus, encryption protections and web filtering is required.

Chief Deuer said that the relationship between the police department, the Borough of North Caldwell and the West Essex school district is “second to none” and that there is “a remarkable friendship” between the bodies.

Most recently, the North Caldwell governing body supported the acquisition of new radios that offer the ability to turn any cellular telephone into a “two-way radio similar to police radios,” according to Deuer.

The radios can stream live videos that can be shared with all of the police departments and first responders arriving on a scene without delay. According to Deuer, these new radios are “seamless and work perfectly with a one-touch button,” adding that there is “no delay in effectively communicating.”

Referencing an excellent relationship between the Belleville police and fire departments and the school district, Rubin noted that Belleville has 35 armed guards throughout the district who are retired law enforcement officers and are licensed to carry a firearm.

“The times are changing and there is always a threat,” said Rubin, who added that the district also has three school resource officers and that a roving, marked police car patrols the various buildings in a random pattern.

According to Rubin, the district’s officers have participated in active shooter drills among other professional-development initiatives as well.

Stating that the City of Newark has 67 schools, 37,000 students and 7,000 employees, Wilson remarked that the city takes an “it-takes-a-village” approach to the security and safety of students.  

She noted that there is currently a lobby guard situated in 51 schools and that the district maintains a data base of sex offenders that is constantly updated, allowing a web-based notification if a potential visitor should be barred from entering a building. There are also 3,000 cameras that have all been updated to high definition and monitor the schools from a remote location.

Furthermore, Wilson mentioned that due to the high number of schools with students on the autism spectrum, the schools have had their exterior doors upgraded to have monitors installed so that security is aware when a door is opened. Training in Newark is ongoing on a regular basis and also partakes in active shooter drills, she said.

During the panel discussion, Cammarata stated that his office—the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning—was formed in 1999 after the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, but that everything changed after the Sandy Hook shooting. According to Cammarata, the volume of work that the department undertook suddenly “exploded” in the aftermath of the 2012 tragedy.

The department’s primary purpose is to monitor to ensure that the schools are in compliance with school security measures and best practices, according to Cammarata. Noting that its secondary purpose is to ensure that comprehensive “emergency operation security plans” are in place at all schools, Cammarata said that there are currently 91 elements incorporated into seven sections of school security compliance. He added that requests come into the office for a multitude of compliance initiatives.

Additionally, Cammarata referenced the many free resources that the department offers to school districts.

Some of these opportunities include reunification training, threat assessment, school bus driver training, suicide risk factors, comprehensive active shooter management drills and mental health assessments. Working with University Hospital there, the department also offers “bleeding control kits.”

“We don’t drill for success; we drill for failure,” said Cammarata.

Adding that this generation of students “has grown up with practicing security drills” when there had previously only been fire drills, Macioci noted that “some students may experience anxiety regarding the drills,” but that practice can “increase their knowledge and improve their confidence.” 

Wilson, who said the trauma team in Newark meets on a daily basis, noted that some required drills now include lockdowns, bomb threats, evacuations and “shelter in place.” Additionally, students on buses are required to have evacuation drills twice a year. 

More information regarding school security can be found HERE.

It was noted during the discussion that the West Orange Police Department conducted an active shooter drill in 2013 under the direction of Lieutenant John Morella in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security and the Picatinny Arsenal based in Wharton.

Held at Liberty Middle School with 25 law enforcement entities represented, the mock active shooter drill remains the largest ever conducted in New Jersey.