WESTFIELD, NJ — While local police are at the ready, the public plays a key role in keeping children safe at local schools.
Such was the key takeaway from a parent forum on school security at Edison Intermediate School on Wednesday, where state education officials briefed parents and staff on best practices. The forum follows the June arrest of an armed man on the grounds of Tamaques Elementary School and a nationwide rise of school shootings.
“Schools were very different places since 1999,” said Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan, referring to the year of the April 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School. “I think every educator in this room would agree that every year since then, changes have been made to improve the security of our staff and our students.”
There’s good reason that districts have changed their policies, Jeff Gale, director of the DOE’s Office of School Preparedness and Emergency, said.
“Subsequent shooters — whether they be school shooters or active shooters in other realms — they recognize the notoriety that they would get instantly with this,” Gale said. “And that is something that we struggle against in the security community.”
Would-be shooters after school shootings have benchmarks. — “This set a cultural blueprint,” he said.
From the time of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting to the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, 405 school shootings occurred in the United States, Gale said.
He said that 99% of the time there is one shooter; 96% of the time the shooter is a male; 40% of the time the shooter takes their own life; and in 48% of school shootings, law enforcement kills the shooter at the scene.
“They’re suicidal, and they’re homicidal,” Gale said. “If we’re aware of those things, we should be reporting those things.”
Typically, a would-be school shooter will leave behind clues of what they intend to carry out, he said.
“That research and planning is something that leaves behind an internet footprint,” Gale said. “It leaves behind them activities that people around them invariably see.”
Thomas Gambino, a program specialist with the DOE’s Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning, emphasized the importance of visitor policy procedures, something that changed in Westfield public schools after June’s incident at Tamaques School.
In that incident, the man who police later found with a handgun and hollow point bullets at the school was reported to have entered the school shortly before his arrest in the school’s parking lot. He had used a school telephone to call a staff member, according to documents filed in the case. The incident happened after school had let out for the day.
Even people known to the district should not be automatically permitted to enter the building, the state officials said.
“We might know the parent,” Gambino said. “We might know why they’re coming up, but we don’t know what just happened in their life.”
In Westfield, Dolan said the district relies on law enforcement and security consultants to analyze prior incidents and update best practices. The district trains students how to respond to emergency situations, she said. It relies on a private Security Firm, StoneGate Associates, she said.
The state officials discussed the installation of updated vestibules for school security, something the Westfield school board decided against earlier this year in favor of more stringent visitor policies. The proposal, which followed the scare at Tamaques School, would have cost $5 million, officials then said.
“They can be very helpful in determining if you have a non-custodial parent trying to gain access to their children,” said Gale, who also noted that any district’s financial resources are limited.
The state officials said that in some districts, police have not been welcomed in district schools. In Westfield, however, the police play an integral role in school security, Police Chief Christopher Battiloro said.
“The Westfield Police Department has been making unannounced security checks of every public school twice a day: once in the morning and once in the afternoon,” Battiloro said.
These checks come in addition to the presence of school resource officers, who play an integral role at Westfield High School and the district’s two intermediate schools. The town and the district split the cost of these officers.
Battiloro said that in schools where there are not officers present during the school day, the department can respond within 3 minutes.
“It should take us 45 seconds or so to process the call and 2 minutes before we have an officer on the scene,” Battiloro said.
Nothing, however, is perfect.
“Security is not a destination,” Gale said. “It is something we work toward, and the resources that your administrators have that are at their fingerprints — they’re finite.”
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