Education

School Security Report Due at Monday's Board of Education Meeting

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Performing Arts Center at Ridge High School, 268 S. Finley Ave., Basking Ridge. Credits: By Walter Pardo
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BERNARDS TWP., NJ - A former State Police captain is scheduled to give a report to the Board of Education this Monday night on what she recommends the school district should do to improve security at its six buildings.

Kathy Devlin, retired after 27 years with the N.J. State Police and now owner of the Dev-Tac LLC company that sells its security analysis expertise, is scheduled to speak to the Board of Education on Monday, May 21. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. at the Ridge High School Performing Arts Center, 268 S. Finley Ave. in Basking Ridge.

Devlin has toured district building and is almost finished with her work, said Superintendent Nick Markarian. On April 23, the school board approved a maximum of $5,000 for consultation services from the Marlton-based firm as part of continuing efforts to re-examine school security at all township school buildings.

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Devlin also worked as a school resource officer and security chief in Pemberton school district, he said, and was a member of a 2014 statewide school security task force.

The issue of school safety rose dramatically in the township following shootings at a Parkland, Fla., high school, in February.

Markarian said on May 7 that Dev-Tac would look at arrangements and numbers of school security officers, as well as staffing and administration. The firm will review policies and procedures, facility emergency plans, drills and buildings (doors, exits, etc.)

DevTac was expected to evaluate hardware security and pedestrian and traffic flow to buildings.

Since March the board has heard public calls for more hardened security at school facilities, as well as pushing the district to consider hiring more school resource police officers to work in the school. The Somerset County Board of Freeholders has called for local districts to hire one officer per school building across the county.

Township, police and school officials have been meeting on the issue

The issue also came up at last week's Bernards Township Committee meeting, where Mayor John Carpenter said, "We work hand in glove with the school system." Township, police and school officials have met a number of times to discuss school security in the aftermath of the school shootings.

"I’m waiting to see what the Board’s Security Consultant recommends," Carpenter added in an email on Sunday.

Speaking at the Township Committee meeting, parent Sherry Gardner Nelson said residents who are concerned about the topic should attend a meeting of BRASS (Bernards Residents Advocating School Safety), which she said has already been working with the police and school officials. She said the township should have input because the municipality is in charge of the police department and school resource officers.

Police presence already increased at township schools

"The police department has already increased presence at all schools during key and other random times," and additional strategic planning is ongoing, Bernards Police Chief Michael Shimsky said in an email late last week.

Shimsky said that the township currently funds all salary related costs for the two full time school resource offers assigned to both Ridge High and William Annin Middle School. "There are no plans to change that."

Shimsky said that he had not yet seen Devlin's report, but, "We look forward to seeing what she has to say."

Shimsky added that the township is committed to cooperating with the Board of Education in regards to school safety and "will continue to meet to facilitate implementing methodologies that will make our schools as safe as they can possibly be."

He also said the township is willing to facilitate the managing of whatever type of additional armed security staff, "should the BOE decide to go that route." The municipality would have to be the technical employer of any law enforcement officer who carries a firearm, Shimsky said.

At the May 7 Board of Education meeting, the board heard more public comments asking for more money to be spent on guidance, mental health awareness and crisis counselors than for posting armed people in school buildings.

Allen Melick, a 2017 grad, said the district should hire more counselors before arming people. There were more deaths from drug overdoses and suicides than anything else, he reminded the board. “I think you are not focused on the right problems,” he said to the board.

Resident James Vopal said the “clear-cut facts” showed the greater threats to the community were substance abuse and suicide. He pointed to school violence reports that showed two gun shootings in 250 years in New Jersey, but 84 suicides of New Jersey students ages 10- to 18 in the period from 2013-15. “Too many” were from Bernards Township, he said. The district’s violence reports in the last three years showed far more incidents of substance abuse and bullying than weapons, he said.

A female Ridge High student who said she was a leader in the March walkout over protest of the Florida shootings said guns were not the answer to providing a safer environment in schools.

Markarian said “there was a limit what the district can afford to do with staff” due to financial constraints. “What we’d like to do we may not be able to,” he said, adding the district was looking for “a balanced approach.”

He noted the school will make an investment in communication systems in buildings in the next budget, planned upgrades to security cameras at the middle and high schools, more secure entrance at Ridge High, and experimenting with electronic locks and a visitor ID scan system.

In that night’s budget review, Markarian said staffing options under consideration included one or more special law enforcement officers and/or a district safety and security director. A board decision was awaiting input from district security consultant, he said.

The superintendent said the district has done a lot with suicide and mental health awareness and character-building and other programs, and added a student assistance counselor at the middle school. It conducts an annual survey of students concerns and reported stresses in order to address them, he said.

“I’m very proud of what the staff had done in the last 12 to 18 months on this issue,” he said.

The agenda for Monday's school board meeting is posted online.

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