Is It Safe? Schools Grapple with Security Issues

Two years after Newtown shootings, Jersey school districts handle security in various ways.

It's Only a Drill: Police take aim during last year’s active-shooter drill at Liberty Middle School in West Orange.
Photo by WestOrangePatch.com

December will mark the second anniversary of the horrific shooting that claimed the lives of 20 students and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In the aftermath of the tragedy, security was increased at schools throughout New Jersey and the nation. While concern about school security seems to have abated with time, many in the state are working to overcome complacency.

“Everything changed after the Newtown school shooting,” says Essex County Sheriff Armando B. Fontoura. For starters, he says, the state attorney general’s office requires every school to have “an active-shooter policy in place.”

Fontoura cites the elaborate drill held in August 2013 at Liberty Middle School in West Orange. The drill, involving 150 volunteers, was orchestrated by the West Orange Police Department, Picatinny Arsenal, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, which provided $140,000 in funding. The drill included SWAT teams, helicopters and even live explosions.

“This was one of the most proactive approaches, with law enforcement and the U.S. military joining forces,” says West Orange Police Lieutenant John Morella. The intent, he says, “was maybe not avert these types of incidents, but to be able to deal with them more effectively.”

Morella says the drill helped West Orange see the need for better interagency communication, Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detection systems for first responders and increased incident command training at all levels.

Not every district can stage such a large-scale drill. However, to get ready for this school year, many schools and police departments have been preparing smaller drills that could be crucial in keeping our children safe.

Like most districts around the country, the Belleville school system holds lockdown drills and emergency evacuations four times a year. Belleville has another tactic in place. “Before the Newtown tragedy, we had armed Belleville police officers in every high school and middle school as School Resource officers,” says Belleville Chief of Police Joseph Rotonda. After the shooting, these officers were supplemented by armed retired police officers in all Belleville schools.

“The students were a little tentative at the beginning because they weren’t sure what was going on,” says Rotonda. “Over time, they have become very friendly with them. The officers don’t wear uniforms, they wear sports jackets and pants, and their weapon is concealed.”

Additionally, Rotonda says Belleville has instituted a new township-wide radio system that allows the armed guards to communicate with each other and with the police department.

Some school districts don’t want an armed presence. Among those opting out is Marlboro Township—where the board of education conducted a much-publicized three-month experiment with armed police officers in each of the municipality’s eight schools in the wake of the Newtown shooting.

These days, the Marlboro schools are employing ex-law enforcement officers with significant security experience as unarmed security monitors.

“You enter our schools through a locked vestibule, and the first person you see is the security monitor,” says Dr. Eric Hibbs, superintendent of Marlboro Township Public Schools. “Your information is entered through a program called LobbyGuard, which not only stores the information of who is in our school at any time, but also runs a brief background check. LobbyGuard will alert us of an offender that is on the public national sex offender database. If this occurs, we have protocols set up that will immediately notify the local police.”

Hibbs says the decision to dispense with armed guards does not mean the schools are less concerned about security. “Our children’s safety is the most important thing in the world,” he declares.

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