ESSEX COUNTY, NJ - West Essex area police chiefs gathered with more than 100 Essex County school and law enforcement officials at a security conference prepared by Anthony Bland, the state coordinator of the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning. The event took place at the Newark office of Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn A. Murray on Thursday, March 13, and was also attended by New Jersey Acting Attorney General John Hoffman. The purpose of the forum was for school officials to interact and discuss safety and security issues with their local emergency responders, and to address any procedural questions about school safety and security plans.
The summit focused on public schools, charter schools and other school facilities. The prosecutor explained that New Jersey has been working to make sure that every school has plans in place to deal with emergencies and crisis - particularly after the mass murder at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, and similar tragedies which have taken place across the country.
According to the NJ Department of Education, the number of New Jersey school security incidents are increasing:
2010-2011 ~ 1,246 cases of New Jersey students bringing weapons to school
2010-2011 ~ New Jersey schools experienced 11,216 violent incidents
Total number of incidents reported
- 2009-2010 school year ~ 16,338
- 2010-2011 school year ~ 17,386, an increase of 6.4 percent
Governor’s K-12 School Security Task Force
In 2006, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine established the Governor’s K-12 School Security Task Force to address issues relating to how agencies could work more collaboratively to ensure school safety. When it comes to these issues, New Jersey is ahead of many other states. In fact, New Jersey was the first state in the nation to require districts to have regular lock down drills. It was only after the tragedies at Sandy Hook, that other states began requiring lock down drills. New Jersey and Arizona are still the only two states that provide specific requirements regarding what should be included in those drills.
School Security drills are an exercise to practice procedures that respond to an emergency situation. The drills follow different procedures including:
- a non-fire evacuation
- a reverse evacuation
- an evacuation to a relocation site
- a lockdown
- an active shooter situation
- a bomb threat
In New Jersey, every school is required to hold at least one fire drill and one school security drill each month within the school hours, including during any summer month instruction period. In addition, schools and law enforcement are required to test the school’s notification system.
Caldwell Police Chief James Bongiorno attended the security forum on Thursday and said he thought it was “extremely important and beneficial to have everyone working together on such an important topic. The forum was great to ensure all lines of communication are open and that we are doing everything that we can to ensure the safety of all of our children while attending school."
Safer Schools for a Better Tomorrow Initiative
Bland, the state coordinator of the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning considered Thursday’s school safety and security mini-conference as “one of the pillars of the state's Safer Schools for a Better Tomorrow initiative.” He designed the platform to provide strategic information which would ensure that educational leaders and local law enforcement would partner throughout an emergency - by prevention, planning, response and recovery.
“As President of the Essex County Chiefs Association, I commend Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray and Attorney General John Hoffman for their participation in this informative and very important subject,” West Caldwell Chief of Police Michael J. Bramhall expressed. “The standing-room-only attendance from law enforcement executives and school officials from around the county indicates the commitment and recognized importance of keeping our school children safe.”
Speakers who presented guidance on school security included:
- Edward Dickson, Director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness
- Jacquelyn Leon of the New Jersey Department of Education
- Christopher Lynam of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security Preparedness
- Joseph Zarra, Interim Essex County Executive Superintendent
Douglas Huber, Chief of the Verona Police Department, thought it was a “great program” and commented, “It reinforced the importance of continued diligence when preparing for school safety.”
Essex Fells Police Chief Vincent Kulik said that he considered the meeting to be informative and that it continued to stress the importance of good communication between law enforcement and school officials. “We are fortunate to have an excellent relationship with our elementary and West Essex Regional school officials,” the chief added.
Among other things, conference speakers discussed:
- the importance of drills, particularly during inconvenient times such as recess or closing time
- making sure local police departments have building plans for all schools in the district
- proper training of all staff, including custodians and cafeteria personnel
- effective communication with parents and other partners who might be needed in the event of crisis
Fairfield Police Chief Charles G. Voelker Jr. attended the meeting along with the Superintendent of the Fairfield Public Schools Susan Ciccotelli and the directors of the three private schools in Fairfield. He expressed that, while there have been previous similar meetings held in Essex County, he felt that this one was particularly helpful because it enabled all of the schools to have their Memorandums of Understanding signed and fully executed on the same day.
“The message from the NJ Attorney General and the Director of the Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness was very direct,” Voelker commented. “We all need to ‘step up our game’ with our preparation, planning and drills. Since it is not a matter of ‘if’ it will happen, we need to be prepared for ‘when’ it happens! I wholeheartedly agree with him and the Fairfield Police Department is working diligently to be prepared for whatever may come.”
The acting attorney general Hoffman expressed that there is only so much law enforcement and schools can do to be prepared, but that all groups must do their best to work together effectively so that the inherent panic and confusion won’t make an emergency situation worse. “Complacency is not an option,” he said.