FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, NJ - In almost every community across the United States, school safety has surfaced as one of the most important topics of discussion this year.
Last week the freeholder board announced it will fund a second armed school resource officer at the county Vocational & Technical High School in Bridgewater, and urged every school district in Somerset County to do the same as a means to enhance school security in their communities.
Franklin Township Public School district currently has two armed School Resource Officers, one at Franklin High School (FHS) and one at Franklin Middle School (FMS). Together they bring close to 40 years of law enforcement experience to the district.
FMS SRO, Stacey Grant graduated from Trenton State College with a BA in Criminal justice and started her career with the Delaware River and Bay Authority Police Department in 1999 as a Highway Patrol Officer.
She received specialized training in sexual assault investigations and has been serving on the Franklin Township Police Department for more than 16 years as a Patrol Officer and in the Juvenile Detective Bureau as a School Resource Officer.
"I have been heavily involved in our departmental community policing initiatives, such as P.A.C.E.R., Project R.E.S.P.E.C.T., and Operation Blue Angel," Grant said in an email. "While assigned to the Patrol Division, I served as a Senior Citizen Liaison Officer. In that capacity, I provided crime prevention education to our senior citizens at the township Senior Center and residential communities throughout town. Additionally, I was a point of contact for seniors needing assistance with specific issues, such as fraud and identity theft."
FHS SRO, Al Twain Burwell started his career as an officer with the City of East Orange in 1999 where he worked for seven years before joining the Franklin Township Police Department in 2005.
While serving with EOPD, Burwell worked on the Auto Theft Task Force, Street Crime Assertion Unit, Detective Bureau, Narcotics Unit and Violent Crime Task Force. He also served as an SRO prior to joining FTPD as a patrolman.
Burwell has been working as SRO at FHS for the last nine years building a relationship with many people at the high school.
"Everyone seems to flock to you with all types of issues, hence you quickly develop close relationships with administrators, maintenance workers, safety officers, teachers, parents and lastly but should have been first, the students," Burwell said in an email. "So when your receiving input/ complaints from all those people you kind of have a lot of the pieces to a puzzle, school safety being one of them."
Regarding school safety, police say probably the most important thing parents can do as a preventative measure is ensuring they have open communication with their children.
Both officers were asked specific questions regarding school safety and below are their responses unedited:
What is the biggest safety risk in the schools?
Burwell says - To me, accessibility. It’s a difficult task to guard every door in a school and check every bag that comes in. Schools have many doors and its extremely difficult to monitor who’s coming in and out.
Grant says - Monitoring entrances into the schools. Anytime you have hundreds or thousands of people entering a building from multiple points, there is a substantial risk factor.
Do you think metal detectors are needed? If so, why or why not?
Burwell says - My theory on metal detectors is twofold.
They are a tool that has been successfully used in other districts. They may even act as a deterrent and make someone think twice about bringing an item to the school. With that being said, budgets are tight and the District will have to determine if they are a viable option for the schools.
There are many pros and cons to the presence of metal detectors. District Officials will have to determine if the benefits that may come from their presence will be justified against the cost and potentially negative impact they could have on the schools.
Grant says - Metal detectors are a tool designed to increase safety. While sometimes logistically and financially burdensome, they provide us another means of securing our school buildings and protecting our children. They are now routinely found at sports arenas, museums, amusement parks like Disney World and Great Adventure—why would we not want to utilize them to protect our children at school? As a mother of three, I want any tool available to make my kids safer at school. Hindsight is 20/20. With incidents occurring nationwide on a far too regular basis, does anyone want to wake up the next day and ask “why didn’t we…?"
What is the most important thing the community should know concerning the safety of our schools?
Burwell says - I know it may be difficult for many to do, in light of all the media attention schools have been getting lately, but you got to have faith. Know that all the wheels of the system are always turning to ensure that school safety is a priority here in Franklin and remember it takes a village to keep schools safe too. Continue doing your part.
Grant says - Be involved and be aware of what’s going on. We all have to work together to prevent incidents like Columbine, Sandy Hook or Parkland, and every other tragic school shooting, from happening here. If you see or hear something, say something—we all must play a part in the safety of our schools.
Question: What should parents do to help ensure that schools will be safe?
Burwell says - Parenting is so difficult and challenging nowadays. Parents have to find “successful” ways to monitor social media activity, cell phone and text usage and friends of their children AND then educate their children on what to do when things happen that shouldn’t.
If children are taught that’s its ok to be that person to alert the police or someone you can trust when a friend or anyone on social media (or any other platform) makes comments or statements that suggest that they may hurt themselves or others. This is important because many kids are wrapped up in this “keep quiet code/ don’t tell.” Though I understand why they feel this way they must be taught that it’s unacceptable and why.
Students are our/my front line. I personally cannot keep up with the Tweets, Finstas (fake Instagrams), FaceBook, Instagram etc post, who they are and all of the constantly changing text abbreviations. Our students monitor and interact with this activity all day and all night. They stay connected and they see things that are questionable and unacceptable and they know it but they fear telling someone because they may be ousted by their peers.
We need to let them know its ok. We need the students to cooperate and participate.
Grant says - Parents need to become hyper-vigilant in the day-to-day activities of their children. Knowing what your child is doing and who they are spending time with is critical. Monitoring what your kids are doing online--what apps they are using, what websites they are visiting and who they are communicating with online is crucial. But, probably the most important thing parents can do as a preventative measure is ensuring they have open communication with their children. If your kids can talk to you, and feel comfortable and safe doing so, and that they can come to you with anything, you are a step ahead of any problem. Whether it is your child who is feeling a certain way and needs help or your child is aware of another student who needs help or is acting in an unusual manner, the only way this actually gets to a parent is if they have good, open dialogue with their child.
As for students, the most important thing they can do is to say something to an adult, any adult, if they notice a friend or fellow student acting in an unusual manner or talking about inappropriate things. Many students are afraid to say something for fear they will be labeled as a snitch or that they will lose a friendship but students must know that they can make a tremendous difference in preventing an incident just by saying something.
What type of KEY tactics are being used by FTPD to keep the schools safe?
Burwell says - Presence, Communication, and Cooperation.
The fact that there are armed police officers present in the High School and Middle school all day is a KEY tactic in school safety.
I believe our presence alone is a big deterrence toward a lot of unwanted activity.
It’s like that cop car sitting on the side of the street that you like to speed down. If it’s sitting there, you are less likely to speed down that street on that day. Same concept.
Presence is most important and personal tactic to me because I think that a police officer’s presence within the school allows for us to formulate trusting relationships with many of the students through creating programs, informal groups, simple everyday interaction and an open door policy.
I have deployed all of the aforementioned KEY tactics in the past 9 years and they have worked well in helping to bridge the gap between police and the students/ children in the community.
I look at it like a virus, but a positive virus. I infect a few of the students by showing them the positive aspects of police work, then they pass it on. But not all get infected though. Some students have developed a resistance for whatever reason and some of them just need more attention than others.
I have formed some of the best, hopefully, long-lasting, bonds with students from many different races and ethnicities just through interaction and the use of some suggestive techniques I have developed over the years.
I have convinced many kids who have had no faith or trust in the police, to let down their guard just long enough to afford me the opportunity to make a positive impact. I must say that I am very content with my success. I am satisfied with all of the outcomes no matter how big or small of a change was made because the interaction alone was precious and will never be forgotten I’m sure.
Communication is another controllable KEY factor. The ability to communicate with the Board Of Education on issues or concerns as they relate to school safety is wonderful. The ability for two different entities to be able to come together in a timely fashion, address a safety issue that has transpired or may transpire, and then come to a solution; that is a priceless asset.
To couple Cooperation with communication is just a symphony of cohesiveness. It has been my experience that once the FTBOE has decided on the best way to address a safety concern, and police support is needed in effectuating the task, we cooperate and support them fully. When it’s a safety concern brought up by the police, then I have seen this level of cooperation and support seamlessly work in reverse.
Grant says - Franklin PD has been ahead of the curve dealing with this issue in that we’ve had SROs assigned to certain schools for over a decade. We’ve had educational programs (D.A.R.E. in the past, currently G.R.E.A.T.) taught by officers in Franklin schools for nearly two decades. In fact, since I’ve been with the department, there have been various programs aimed at bringing police officers together with students and creating a relationship that, in and of itself, helps to keep our schools safe by opening channels of communication. It has built a level of trust you likely don’t see in many other agencies.
In my school (FMS), specifically, I created a Law Enforcement Club this year to further get kids involved and educate them on the inner workings of law enforcement. The goal was to provide education on different career paths for kids interested in the field. But, because of recent incidents in the news, the unintended benefit has been that the club has given the kids a safe place to ask questions. Each meeting there has been discussions on the role of law enforcement in response to critical school incidents and what students should be doing in the event something happens at our school. We’ve had in depth discussion on why we have so many drills and why it is so important that they take each drill seriously. I’ve really been afforded an opportunity with this club to have open discussion with the kids in a relaxed environment. Giving them the information they want/need helps me keep them safe.
Specific to physical safety, we are constantly assessing building safety in our township schools and striving to improve prevention and response protocols. Each incident of school violence provides, sadly, more insight on what we can do better. Unfortunately, the information often comes at the highest price but by using it to improve our protocols, we are constantly evolving.
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