With fatal school shootings increasingly making headlines, parents of students in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District raised concerns they had about what was being done to strengthen school security during a Board of Education meeting on May 21.
Three days after a 17-year-old student fatally shot eight of his peers and two teachers, and wounded 13 others at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, on May 18, members of the community were worried a similar tragedy could happen close to home.
“It’s sad that we have to have this conversation, but it must be had,” Pennington Borough resident Jeffrey Gross said. “I’m under no impression at all that having security people in schools will prevent that person from coming in. There [are] a lot of things that go into a person who is that upset or that distraught to do such.”
Gross, who has sons at Timberlane Middle School and Hopewell Valley Central High School, said he would want security personnel at the schools who could “confront” a suspected individual and take action if necessary.
In April, the middle school and the high school were put on lockdown after a “suspicious person” was sighted. After being questioned by police, the individual was found to be a former Hopewell Valley Central High School student and the lockdown was lifted.
For Gross, what students are taught in safety drills is “not a good enough answer.”
“I would never want any one of our children ever to lose a life and then have it be said, ‘Why didn’t we do something?’ ” he said. “I think it’s imperative in this day and age, we need to have someone who can potentially reduce the damage. The guard isn’t going to be the end-all, but I would prefer a person be there so they can take a shot and engage.”
Superintendent of Schools Thomas A. Smith said “not a day goes by when we don’t worry or think about what we can do.”
The school district, Smith said, has various “intangible” ways to improve school security, such as expanding mental health efforts through counseling, as well as electronic communication with concerned students.
“If there is a good thing is come out of this, it’s [that] students are being much more vocal and raising concerns about other students, about bringing matters to the attention of administration,” Smith said. “Kids will bring to us items of concern that students either Snapchatted or Instagrammed to someone else and brought it to an adult and said, ‘I’m worried about this, can you help?’ ”
The tangible aspects, Smith said, include plans to improve staff training, from bus drivers to administrators, which will be taking place over the summer.
“This is moving away from the traditional ‘hide-in-a-corner’ training to a much more dynamic training and providing staff with opportunities to make decisions and be actively involved in these situations,” he said.
In regard to security, Smith said limited access to the high school has been implemented, as well as talks of building and locking vestibules to some of the buildings.
By the end of this year, all six of the campus safety officers will be retired police officers, Smith said.
“There is life training police officers have that a normal person who walks the halls doesn’t have,” he added. “We are also looking at changing their roles. We don’t want our officers to be in the main office answering phones if a secretary isn’t there, we would like them more actively involved and monitoring the schools.”
The state is moving forward with a program that involves a trained safety specialist at every school district in New Jersey. Smith and Assistant Superintendent Anthony Suozzo will attend training.
The board’s vice president, Lisa Wolff, said the board and administration worked for five years to have voting booths removed from the schools. During elections, the schools would be open to the community.
After sending many requests to the state Department of Elections, the voting booths were removed from all district schools, with the exception of the Stony Brook Elementary School.
“Rumor has it they are moving the voting out of Stony Brook and into Freedom Village, and if that happens, that will be the last of our schools,” Wolff said. “If you want to talk about creepy, you’re inviting the entire community, of which you’re not doing any ID checks or anything, into your schools.”
Pennington resident Gregory Vaughn raised additional concerns and suggested implementing metal detectors and a single point of entry.
“In [Santa Fe], very little showed there was a problem with that child; we’re not protecting our kids, we’re not protecting our staff,” he said.
Smith said the board is working with the state to “see where [they] land” in terms of these areas.
“At this point, I’m not making a recommendation for armed officers in our schools, and I think, with the metal detectors and talking with the police, there [are] still some questions we have regarding that,” he said.
Smith said the issue of having armed personnel in the schools “needs to be a larger community discussion” before district administrators considers that option.