Unplanned active-shooter drills and routine patrols by uniformed police will become a more common in schools as authorities implement heightened security measures in the wake of last month’s Newtown, Conn., massacre.
As the deadliest school shooting since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, the incident brought renewed scrutiny to schools, many of which installed buzzer systems, security cameras and zero-tolerance policies after the Columbine massacre more than a decade ago.
Local police departments are focusing more manpower on schools after federal and local budget cuts forced the reassignment of resource officers in recent years. Meanwhile, the state Department of Education is planning surprise security drills starting later this month to test school preparedness.
“Parents should feel safe about sending their students to school every day,” said DOE spokeswoman Barbara Morgan.
Morgan said the unannounced drills have been discussed for years as part of a larger initiative that set minimum security requirements. Pre-planned drills have taken place since 2010, she said.
The surprise drills are set to begin at the end of this month or early next month, she said, with the ultimate goal for all schools to be prepared for when “they’re not drills anymore.”
“This is not about ‘gotcha,’” she said. “This is about a conversation with districts and making sure they have the resources and support necessary to do these.”
Many local police departments and school districts have worked to ramp up security since the shooting. In Egg Harbor Township, that led to a voluntary lockdown the day before Christmas break; police have reviewed safety plans in Hamilton Township; and Somers Point has launched a school resource officer program of its own.
The increased vigilance is not without cause. Mainland Regional High School was closed Friday after a student from another district in another county received a text indicating it as one of several schools that could be the target for a shooting.
Last month, a Galloway teen was arrested on weapons charges after a tip by a Cedar Creek High School teacher led to the search of his house. Previous rumors and tips have led to closures at Absegami High School, Southern Regional High School and Mainland.
Somers Point Police Chief Michael Boyd said a lieutenant who had previously worked as night supervisor and community awareness officer has been reassigned to patrol the schools.
“As a police department at that time, we thought we had to be more involved in the school situation,” he said.
After the end of the school year, Boyd said the program will be re-evaluated, but so far it seems very effective.
“I can tell you just by being there, we’re opening up a conversation with administrators, teachers and faculties, and it’s just been two and a half weeks,” he said.
Chief Michael Morris, of the Egg Harbor Township police, said the department is planning a practical training exercise with the cooperation of the district, as well as a pilot program that would allow students to volunteer in the community and, in the process, improve communication with law enforcement.
But the ultimate goal, he said, is to reinstate its school resource officer program that was eliminated in 2010 due to budget constraints.
“The SRO is a priceless link in the exchange of information between the school administration, faculty, staff, students, parents and the police department regarding day to day activities, decision making and intelligence gathering,” he said.
Morris said having an officer in the school also provides “peace of mind in having a trained and equipped police officer inside our school.”
In Hamilton Township, Capt Mike Petusky said the department is trying to make officers more visible in the schools despite limited resources.
“You might see a cop five times a day or one day a week,” he said. “You never know when we’re coming.”
The department is also taking proactive steps to review the security plans schools already have in place and make sure police and administrators are on the same page in the event of an emergency.
“Schools are very astute in making sure doors are locked and people coming in area being identified,” he said. “We’re just making some little tweaks.”
For instance, in schools that have had recent additions, Petusky said the department is making sure those changes are noted in floor maps or that furniture is positioned in such a way that it wouldn’t impede security.
In addition to schools, Petusky said police have also been working with major retail stores, including the Hamilton Mall and Wal-Mart, to ensure preparedness.
On Thursday, Gov. Chris Christie announced the creation of a statewide SAFE Task Force that would, among other things, study school safety issues.
The New Jersey School Boards Association also sponsored a school safety forum Friday at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, Mercer Township.
Acting Deputy Executive Director Frank Belluscio said about 650 individuals from districts statewide had signed up for the free forum.
New Jersey schools already have strong security measures, but so did Connecticut, he said.
“We have to look at the incident in Newtown see if there’s anything else to do — we have to try and see,” he said.
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