(TRENTON) – A three-bill legislative package sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) to enhance security in New Jersey’s schools and better protect students and teachers from a wide range of potential threats was released Thursday by an Assembly panel.
“From bullying to Internet predators to threats of gun violence, there are many dangers that schools must be prepared to deal with and shield students from,” said Diegnan. “Enhancing security measures can better prepare schools to respond to situations that threaten the physical safety and emotional well-being of students, so they can focus on their education with limited disruptions.”
The first bill (A-3347) would establish the New Jersey School Safety Specialist Academy in the Department of Education to serve as a central repository for best practices, training standards, and compliance oversight in all matters regarding school safety and security, including prevention efforts, intervention efforts, and emergency preparedness planning.
The academy would provide free ongoing professional development on national and state best practices, as well as the most current resources on school safety and security; assume a lead role in setting the vision for school safety and security in the state; and provide a coordinated and interdisciplinary approach to providing technical assistance and guidance to schools in the state.
Under the bill, the academy would have to develop and implement a School Safety Specialist Certification Program. The program would offer free training to newly-appointed school safety specialists in the areas of bullying, hazing, truancy, Internet safety, emergency planning, emergency drills, drugs, weapons, gangs and school policing, and any other areas deemed necessary. The academy would also offer annual training sessions for certified school safety specialists.
The bill would also direct a school superintendent to designate a school safety specialist for the school district. The school safety specialist must complete the certification program developed by the academy. The school safety specialist would be responsible for the supervision and oversight of all school safety and security personnel, policies, and procedures in the school district; ensure that these policies and procedures are in compliance with state law and regulations; and provide the necessary training and resources to school district staff in matters relating to school safety and security. The school safety specialist would also serve as the school district liaison with local law enforcement and national, state, and community agencies and organizations in matters of school safety and security.
The second bill (A-3348) would implement safety and security recommendations from the 2015 New Jersey School Security Task Force report for new school construction projects and existing buildings. The task force determined that “school renovations and new construction must strike a balance between providing a welcoming educational environment and a safe environment in which students can learn and teachers can teach. Well-reasoned school design will encourage proper security measures to be employed by school districts and save the cost of retrofitting buildings.”
By enacting these task force recommendations, this bill seeks to strike that balance.
“Back in the day, very few schools were built with security issues in mind. The prevalence of school shootings in this country has shattered any lingering nostalgia about schools being invulnerable to deadly violence,” said Diegnan. “Implementing these safety recommendations can better equip schools to defend students and teachers against an attack and lessen the chance of a tragic outcome.”
Under the bill, the following items, among others, should be considered in the architectural design for the construction of new school buildings: marked school entrances with a uniform numbering system, keyless locking mechanisms, access control systems which allow for remote locking and unlocking, sufficient space for evacuation in the event of an emergency, and areas in the school building intended for public use separated and secure from all other areas.
When it comes to new construction projects and existing school buildings, in addition to employing Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design principles, the bill would require that design plans include items such as a requirement that school security personnel be in uniform, limiting the number of doors for school staff access, having exterior doors remain locked, creating secure vestibules at the school’s main entrance, and using surveillance cameras as a target-hardening tool.
The last bill (A-3349) would revise current law on school security drills. Under the bill, all employees in school districts and nonpublic schools would be provided with annual training on school safety and security. Under current law such training is only provided once to certificated staff members. The bill would also provide that the training be conducted collaboratively by the district or nonpublic school and emergency responders in order to identify weaknesses in school safety and security procedures and to increase the effectiveness of emergency responders. It would also require that a law enforcement officer be present for at least one school security drill in each school year to make recommendations on any improvements or changes to drill procedures deemed necessary.
“Ensuring that all employees are trained and prepared to respond during a crisis lessens the risk of the bad situation becoming more chaotic, which can seriously hamper rescue efforts,” said Diegnan. “Having emergency responders and law enforcement involved from the get go ensures that any mistakes are caught and rectified before schools are faced with a real, life-threatening situation.”
The bills were released by the Assembly Education Committee, of which Diegnan is chair.