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

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.

John Polomano, superintendent of the Bordentown Regional School District, said that his schools already have in place many of the governor's measures, with much success.

"We've been doing drills involving students -- it's a way of life," Polomano said.

Canas said it was his job -- and the goal of Corzine's plan -- to help students and teachers spend as much time as possible focusing on the things they come to school for.

"Teachers should be free to teach, and students should be free to learn," Canas said. "As recent events have shown, both these freedoms are threatened."

He said that even before the recent spate of school violence, his office sent a memo to all school administrators reminding them to revisit their safety plans to have at least "a policy that requires every visitor to stop at a checkpoint and show identification."

In a recent special report, The Inquirer tested the security of 43 schools in the region, and reporters found breaches at 20 of them.

Gov. Corzine yesterday proposed S.A.V.E. (Strategic Actions for Violence Elimination), a several-part proposal aimed at making New Jersey schools safer. Here are the highlights:

--Updated standards for school security. The new School Security Task Force will develop state guidelines for school lockdown, emergency evacuation, bomb threats, risk and violence assessments, and public information procedures.

--Regular school security drills and exercises. Corzine will work with the Legislature to propose initiatives requiring each school in the state to run security exercises and drills.

--Law enforcement coordination. Schools will be required to sign agreements with their local police departments. The governor's office will also work with law enforcement agencies and others to review plans and exercise lockdown and active-shooter protocols.

--Training for school resource and DARE officers. Corzine is proposing putting money into his next budget to modify curriculum that is under development for school resource officers and ensure that it includes training based on state guidelines and standards.

--Development of a school security Web site. The Department of Education will launch a site for parents and school personnel.

--Development of security programs for bus drivers. The state teachers' union and Office of Homeland Security have paired to design an awareness pilot program, which will be implemented on a test basis.

--Development of a governor's "Safe School" designation. The School Security Task Force will develop a recognition program for schools that have excelled in the implementation of school security guidelines.

--A greater commitment to gun safety. Corzine will ask the federal government and other states to use New Jersey's tough gun laws as a nationwide model to crack down on illegal guns.

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