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HOPEWELL: School district requests security audit from the state

Hopewell Valley Regional School District officials have asked Trenton to conduct a security audit of the school buildings, following several incidents that have occurred on school properties throughout the country.

School board president Alyce Murray said the district had contacted the state Department of Education’s School Preparedness and Emergency Planning Department for an audit, though a date has not yet been set.

Murray mentioned the mass shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17 students and staff members on Feb. 14, as well as another shooting at a Maryland high school, as a major reason for the request.

Closer to home, a man was allowed to enter Hopewell Central High School through a side door last month after he knocked on the door and a student opened it to let him inside.

Murray said families move to the Hopewell Valley for its quality of life and a greater sense of safety than the state’s larger cities. That sense of safety, however, has been challenged over the past month or so, she said, and “it is particularly concerning” for students, staff and parents.

The school district has a safety committee in place, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Smith said at the school board’s March 26 meeting. It includes police officers, emergency management personnel and the district’s campus safety officers. The committee meets regularly to talk about incidents that have occurred elsewhere, as well as within the school district, he said.

Smith said the requested security audit by the state Department of Education would be helpful, stating that he felt it was a good idea to bring in an objective third party to review what the school district was already doing.

The superintendent also said he met with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office’s Rapid Response Team, which is made up of police officers from towns throughout Mercer County, since the incidents in Florida and Maryland. In the event of an incident, he said, the rapid response team would be among the first to respond.

Hopewell Township is 62 square miles, and it is possible that an Ewing Township police officer may be closer to the scene of an incident than a Hopewell Township police officer,  Smith said. The rapid response team works through those issues, he said.

In the meantime, the school district is taking steps to limit access to school buildings. Those measure include adding locking vestibules to the school building entrances. At Hopewell Central High School, the plan is to install alarms on some of the 50-plus doors at the high school, Smith said.

Additional security cameras will be installed, along with electronic “swipes” to enter the schools. The campus security officers will receive advanced training, also. The district considered the partial funding of a school resource officer – essentially, a police officer – but there is not enough money in the budget.

Although school district officials did not recommend arming teachers – as had been suggested in school districts in other states – some students rejected suggestions of bringing guns into the schools as part of any safety measures.

“I think that throwing guns at what is a gun problem is the wrong way to go,” Hopewell Central High School student Annabel Davis said. “Turning our teachers into surrogate police officers will cause more harm than it will prevent.”

Davis raised the potential for liability issues if teachers are given guns. It would be better to look at the root cause of the issues – mental health and social development, she said. She advocated for providing more mental health support at the middle school and high school.

Hopewell Central High School student Jason Shepherd said students fear the presence of guns in school, and that guns “don’t serve as a remedy to school shootings.” He added that having any firearms present in the school would give pupils “a fear of being shot, whether it is the accidental discharge of a weapon or a mistake of someone’s intentions or identity.”

“The fact that weapons will potentially be in the hands of a trusted officer is hardly reassuring,” Shepherd said. When a loaded gun is in school, “the chances of a student being shot rises dramatically,” he said.

Fewer and more secure doors, combined with better tracking of visitors, “would do much better than having someone ready to take lives be the first thing that each student sees at school every day,” he said.

“When all is said and done, it comes down to one simple question. Do we want Hopewell youths residing in hallways that armed security officers patrol, or do we want them to reside in a school without any fear of firearms, regardless of how those firearms are being used,” Shepherd said.

In response, Smith said school district officials are tasked with ensuring the safety of students and staff and as such, need to think about how the campus security officers will be used. He said no one has recommended arming the teachers with guns.

Smith said his recommendations are to provide increased building security and to control access to the buildings, and to better train the campus security officers and staff. This does not include guns, he emphasized.

“We hear your voices. We are constantly thinking [about what to do] that is best for you,” Murray said.

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