SPARTA, NJ – Recent event have refocused the spotlight on school security for many. For the Sparta Police Chief Neil Spidaletto and the Sparta Superintendent Dr. Michael Rossi, it is an ongoing concern. Some things have been added this year, some are in process and others will start next year.
“We are horrified by the recent shooting,” Rossi said. “It has brought a heightened awareness of this issue.”
Spidaletto and Rossi, together with Sparta Township Manager Bill Close have finalized plans to return a School Resource Officer to the public schools beginning April 1. The officer has already received training according to Rossi. The SRO “will have space in every building” Rossi said.
The officer will handle cases in the schools and will teach classes in school including LEAD in fifth and sixth grade and Not Even Once in the high school. The security guards in the high school will remain. Rossi said he is looking at flex scheduling for the security guards so the school is covered after the final bell during games and activities.
Sparta previously had two SROs but they were eliminated with township budget cuts. The board of education and township will be splitting the cost of the officer.
“Dr. Rossi is doing a good job and we have a great working relationship with the board of education,” Spidaletto said. “We are all concerned about school security.”
The district has added new vestibules or “man traps” inside the front doors of the Sparta’s three elementary schools. The additions to the older buildings will “complement the ones already at the middle school and high school,” according to Rossi.
The “acquisition of LobbyGuard” will add to the efficacy of the vestibules for keeping out people who should not be in the schools.
LobbyGuard is a kiosk that does a background check before visitors enter the building. Visitors will have to swipe their license to gain entry, rather than get buzzed into the building to be screened in the office as is now the case.
A horn and strobe system has been added to the schools. They might not be seen by the public but the students and staff certainly know they are there. With blaring noise and flashing lights, the apparatus is especially effective in the larger spaces in the school such as the gymnasiums and cafeterias and outside where traditional alarms might not be easily heard.
Rossi said the horns and strobes system includes a “panic button that can be activated, sending a message over the loud speaker that says ‘lockdown, lockdown, lockdown…’.” This would overcome the situation seen recently in Florida where the fire alarm was pulled, bringing everyone out to the halls, into the line of fire.
Key pads and panic bars are being installed in the new fencing added around the modular classrooms at Alpine Elementary School according to Rossi.
“Each building principal will be submitting a final plan for processing people entering the building by June 1,” Rossi said.
Rossi said the district will be hosting a Safety and Security Summit at Sparta High School on May 19 for area residents. While still in the planning stage, Rossi said Dr. Tom Gambino from the New Jersey Department of Education School Preparedness and Emergency Planning will be the keynote speaker.
After Gambino speaks, Rossi said there will be “topical breakout sessions.” Some of the topics to be covered include “mental health, best practices, how do we keep people safe at events, connections with law enforcement.” According to Rossi, the Sussex County Prosecutor will also be participating.
“It’s scary and I don’t have all the answers,” Rossi said. “It is an area that I’ll take all the help I can get.”
Next year, according to Rossi, no one will be admitted into the schools without an appointment.
'I categorically dismiss the idea of teachers carrying a gun," Rossi said.
Additional cameras have been added to the schools. They can be accessed by police in the patrol cars and at Sparta Police Department headquarters, according to Spidaletto.
Spidaletto said officers regularly observe the schools’ drills to provide feedback. Each teachers’ desk in the school is supposed to have a copy of the emergency plan covering all different possible scenarios.
Spidaletto said Sparta is part of a countywide security plan. All schools have the same drills and protocols to ensure that, in an emergency, other townships’ first responders know how things work, regardless of which town is having the emergency.
Additionally, every district has a designated off-site pick up school, where parents will be directed to get their children. Parts of the plan are responsibly a secret.
Patrols have an increased presence in the schools, walking the hallways, Spidaletto said. Over the summer the police also walk the schools to familiarize themselves with the layout of the buildings.
An additional countywide program in the works is to geomap every facility, according to Spidaletto. Funded by a grant, the Critical Response Group creates a database of geospatially accurate positions for each area of the school buildings.
The organization says they develop “visual representations of text-based emergency response plans that transform difficult to use written plans into highly-usable, geospatially accurate visual planning and response tools.”
Officers receive Active Shooter training with replica bullets, “like paintball,” Spidaletto said, “real weapons and real circumstances at another facility.” Countywide the police are receive training in the Firearms Training Simulator or FATS. “The County Chiefs Association is looking to purchase a portable one,” Spidaletto said.
Spidaletto said he echoes the concern raised by the school shooting in Florida surrounding the issues of mental health. He said in 2016 the New Jersey Attorney General mandated Community Law Enforcement Affirmative Relations or CLEAR training for officers that includes mental health training.
The police also have a mental health professional as a resource that can be called on to make an evaluation according to Spidaletto. Police are able to act on text messages, facebook posts or statements made to two or three people.
Referred to as Red Flag States, there are only five states that allow the seizure of guns before people commit violent acts, Spidaletto said. California, Washington, Oregon, Indiana and Connecticut have laws that allows temporary removal of guns from people who a judge says poses a threat to themselves or others.
“While we continue to be proactively engaged in safety and security, we also need to weigh the fact that at the end of the day, we are educators,” Rossi said. “We don’t want to be building a detention center.”