In N.J., a Governor's Effort to Bolster School Security

Plan would require updated lockdown guidelines, money for training, schools to plan with police

Oct. 20--Gov. Corzine yesterday took aim at violence in New Jersey's classrooms, announcing a multipronged plan to tighten school security.

His measures will update state lockdown guidelines, add money for training school police officers, and require New Jersey schools to sign agreements with local police departments formalizing security plans. Corzine can put all of that in place on his order. If legislators grant their approval, schools could also be required to run security drills.

"If we don't take this issue seriously, I don't know what other priority we should have," Corzine said, standing in the library of Bordentown Regional Middle School.

Currently, Pennsylvania and New Jersey rules require only that public schools keep emergency plans on file. Schools decide what security measures to put in place.

In Pennsylvania, Kate Philips, spokeswoman for Gov. Rendell, said safety was an important priority. "We are in the process of reviewing all of our school-safety regulations," Philips said.

The review began immediately after the most recent school shootings in Lancaster County, she said. There is no timetable set for when it will end, but afterward, Rendell will decide what changes, if any, are needed, she said. The House Education Committee also plans to hold hearings sometime after next month's elections.

Yesterday's New Jersey initiatives -- packaged as SAVE, Strategic Actions for Violence Elimination -- are aimed at giving school districts tools to make schools safer, members of Corzine's administration said.

"Clearly, as a state, we are ahead of keeping our children safe in schools," said Richard Canas, director of homeland security and preparedness and leader of a newly established task force on school security. "But we have gaps that can yet be plugged."

The cornerstones of the plan include school officials signing memorandums with local police; tightening state security guidelines; and, Corzine said, putting additional money into his next budget for training school police officers in state security protocols.

Another key point, Corzine said, is making sure students perform emergency drills, just as they carry out fire drills. He already has bipartisan support in the Legislature for the emergency drill initiative, he said.

Other new measures include developing a school security Web site for parents and administrators.

School bus drivers will be trained in a "situational awareness" program, and Corzine also called for districts that excel in implementing school security guidelines to be rewarded with a new governor's "Safe School" designation.

The governor said the measures were especially necessary in light of all that has happened in recent weeks. School shootings in Vermont, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Colorado, and, most recently, Nickel Mines, Pa., raised public awareness of the need for emergency preparedness in the classroom.

There have been no classroom tragedies in New Jersey. But, Corzine pointed out, no one is immune.

On Wednesday, an 18-year-old Asbury Park high school student was near death after being shot a block from a city middle school. Schools are closed until Monday because officials fear reprisal.

And yesterday, Cherry Hill High School East was locked down for part of the morning after administrators discovered a bomb threat scrawled on a bathroom wall. Authorities searched the school and determined the threat was a hoax. The perpetrator is still at large.

"We can be thorough and disciplined and effective, but we can never eliminate all risks," the governor said.

As for concerns about the quality of schools' security plans, Corzine said that having agreements with police departments should ensure that each district has a top-notch, individualized road map for any eventuality.

"We need to make sure that we don't put in place one-size-fits-all -- the needs of Asbury Park aren't the same as they are here in Bordentown," Corzine said.

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