BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ - Bernards Township schools are as prepared as possible to thwart or handle a school violence attack, a former state police captain reported Monday night, May 21, to the Board of Education.
Kathy Devlin, retired since 2007 after 27 years with the New Jersey State Police and now owner of the Dev-Tac LLC security analysis company, said the district was “well positioned,” with “building blocks in place,” and suggested changes to enhance existing practices and precautions.
In general, school buildings are safe, she said. She said she could not talk in detail about her specific recommendations for the obvious reasons of keeping information hidden from any prospective perpetrator.
But she did not consider more armed police officers in the buildings a “panacea” and said, “I don’t believe they are a necessary thing here at this time.”
Instead, she came down on the side of the debate that advocates training and educating students, parents and staff to be sensitive to recognizing youngsters who may resort to violence if not given psychological or emotional care and support.
“That’s where you want to concentrate your efforts,” she said.
She said there was some evidence that shooters might even target a school with armed guards as a way to force police to shoot them -- a form of incident commonly called “suicide by cop.”
She said case studies showed little evidence a school is safer with a resident police officer, who may never be able to get a clear shot at an intruder, she said. School resource officers would be the last thing she would recommend here, she said.
She commended the township police force as well trained, forward thinking and following best practices. She said random trips by patrol officers through the campus or buildings might be more effective, because many shooters methodically plan their attacks are watch for predictable routines to exploit.
The issue of school safety rose dramatically in the township following shootings at a Parkland, Fla., high school, in February. Monday’s meeting took place three days after nine students and a staffer were killed in an attack at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas.
Bernards Township has four K-5 elementary schools, one middle school and a high school with a population of about 1,800.
Controlling access to schools should be “the first order of business,” she said. She advocated simple things, like painting room numbers on the inside of classroom doors, to hasten clear direction for panicked students, staffers and responders. She said staffers could be giving ID tags for the rearview mirrors of their autos so police could easily tell if an auto could be expected in the school lot.
She rejected the idea of metal detectors at entrances, saying it would take too long to clear students through them.
Superintendent Nick Markarian said May 7 that Dev-Tac would look at arrangements and numbers of school security officers, as well as staffing and administration. The firm reviewed policies and procedures, facility emergency plans, drills and buildings (doors, exits, etc.), hardware security and pedestrian and traffic flow to buildings.
Township opinion has split over the issue of whether to concentrate resources in prevention and mental health awareness versus hiring more armed officers in each of the buildings.
Sherry Nelson, a leader in a group called BRASS (Bernards Residents Advocating School Safety), said “with all due respect” that school resource officers help and the district needed more armed officers in schools.
Lauren Salko said she supported hiring more officers for the schools, and said they could perform other functions than just protection. She said they can educate children, inform counselors and staffers of their observations of students, spend time in the classroom talking about Halloween safety and fire procedures, and improve response time in many types of emergencies.
Other speakers as passionately asked for emphasis on suicide prevention, ways to lessen student stress and mental and emotional support from teachers, students, guidance counselors and psychological professionals.
Resident James Vopal repeated his call that 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 three years from 2013-15.
He said he knew the board faced making difficult decisions in a hot-button environment. Do what you think is best, he said, adding the public needs to understand any actions will take time.
His message was supported by Amy Melick, who said the district needed more mental health workers. She recalled the pain of having to tell her child that a friend had committed suicide.
Anika Kopczynski, a Ridge High student who said she was a leader in the March walkout over protest of the Florida shootings, once again told the board she believed guns were not the answer to providing a safer environment in schools. Suicide prevention should come first, she said. “Let’s be proactive,” she said.
After hearing more than 20 speakers, Devlin said she recognized the school board must decide whether to undertake a threat assessment/management policy or a prevention policy.
“Nothing is 100 percent foolproof,” she said.
Superintendent Nick Markarian said he believed the school has taken a balanced approach to methods and expense. He noted the addition of student assistance counselors, mental health professionals and school psychologists in recent years.
He noted at the last meeting 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 a May 2018-19 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.
Devlin also worked as a school resource officer and security chief in the Pemberton school district from 2007 to 2016, he said, and was a member of a 2014 statewide school security task force.
Her firm, based in Marlton, was hired in April for a maximum of $5,000.