BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District is working to put its students and staff in safe hands, working with the state police and others to try and minimize risks.
“We want to provide the safest environment for our students and staff,” said Superintendent Russell Lazovick.
The board of education heard a presentation recently about steps begin taken to ensure the safety and security of students and staff in all district buildings. A Powerpoint presentation regarding the night’s school security seminar is expected to be available on the district’s website before mid-October, along with an audio recording.
Gina Villani, assistant superintendent of personnel, spearheaded the safety presentation, and said the process began about two years ago with the district’s Safety Action Team, and an assessment of the district’s school buildings. She said the team took a list of eight security best practices from the New Jersey Department of Education, and expanded it to 13 points for district purposes.
Villani said that in the first year (2017-2018), the team looked at what needed to be done and who to involve, and then assigned priority factors. In the second year (2018-2019), she said, the team began to assess different areas, with data collected through various means and individuals, including herself, a technology manager and school building administrators.
Outside entities also took part in the process, Villani said, including the New Jersey State Police, New Jersey Homeland Security, the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office and both the Bridgewater and Raritan police departments.
Villani added that the district also conducted a mapping effort, with police performing site assessments of the district’s schools and administrative buildings.
“Law enforcement visited while students and staff were present,” said Villani of those assessments.
Vehicular traffic near the schools was also observed, particularly during times of ingress/egress and recess periods, “to see how people were moving around the campuses,” she said.
The data acquired was taken and used to develop a cost analysis, along with a timeline. If improved security were to be funded within the school budget, with the focus on grades kindergarten through 12, then smaller projects could be accomplished more quickly, although some equipment might be considered obsolete. If security were to be funded outside the school budget, projects might still be finished faster, with more projects being taken on at once.
Projects, Villani said, would include both internal and external components. The former would encompass items such as internal cameras and card swipe systems, with the latter referring to articles outside the school building envelopes, such as lighting and fencing.
There were also no-cost projects that could be fulfilled at present, Villani said, such as restricting access to certain parts of the school buildings, or by educating students and staff on security measures.
Capt. John Marley, who serves as chief of the New Jersey State Police’s Critical Infrastructure Bureau, appeared at the board meeting with two of his associates. He said the bureau is one of 79 such centers in the U.S., and boasts a national-level connection, while conducting vulnerability assessments of buildings.
“We’re focused on school safety,” he said. “We create an attitude of preparedness, not paranoia.”
Marley thanked both Lazovick and Villani for their assistance in the district, and said he had first met Villani at a presentation in Atlantic City, when she had inquired about having the State Police examine Bridgewater-Raritan High School and conduct a vulnerability assessment of the campus there, which they did.
“I’ve never seen a school that presented more challenges,” admitted Marley, citing the open-air nature of the BRHS site.
The bureau also checked Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School, as well as other school buildings in the district, beginning in August 2018. Marley said dialogue between the State Police and the district will occur long into the future, as a team effort, and at no cost to the district.
He also spoke about the erroneous mindset of “it can’t happen here,” regarding incidents in schools, and cited that there have been hundreds of school shootings in the U.S. since the Columbine High School tragedy in Colorado in 1999.
“It’s a matter of when and where,” said Marley. “That’s just the facts, and we don’t want it to happen here.”
Marley distributed documents to the board that ostensibly explained the assessments that had been conducted, and also about what law enforcement is trying to accomplish.
He said the assessment methodology utilized starts with the exterior of the school buildings, to identify any possible vulnerabilities. A post-assessment meeting was also conducted to reveal what concerns had been identified, with the assessment also provided to partner agencies, such as the school board.
Marley said that possible low-cost solutions were also examined, along with potential high-cost solutions.
“It’s a treetop-level overview,” he said.
Marley thanked the board and administration for its time, and said he looked forward to continuing the bureau’s dialogue with the district, to keep the district’s students as safe as possible.
In response to a question from a member of the public, Marley said that context will be provided for the district’s school buildings, of which schools to prioritize. He admitted it was “pretty problematic,” but that there was also a good idea of where to go with available resources.
Lazovick thanked Marley and his cohorts for their attendance and assistance. He said the information they provided will help the district with its own training, and added that other school districts will be made aware of the support that had been provided by the State Police.