At issue in New Jersey: Schools' role in security

Posted: April 25, 2013

For all the recent flurry of proposals about gun safety from Gov. Christie and the Democratic-led Legislature, few have sought to change much in the places that have spurred much of the discussion: local schools.

The Christie-appointed task force created after the Newtown, Conn., killings largely praised steps New Jersey schools and the state had taken to ensure student safety.

Christie said in his package of gun safety proposals released Friday that he would leave further steps to local communities.

The main legislative proposals have said much the same, with the most direct proposal from the Democratic leadership calling only for another school safety task force to further discuss potential steps.

"We were impressed by the substantial work that has been done on school safety," said Peter Verniero, the former state attorney general and Supreme Court justice who cochaired the latest task force.

"That part of the equation is working," he said. "That was the clear sense we got from the testimony, the hearings, and everything else."

Still, changes are afoot in many schools, and there are some tricky areas the state will have to weigh in on, several of those involved said, as educators try to stay one step ahead of the possibility of deadly violence.

Districts have begun to talk about putting armed personnel in their buildings, and, in separate requests usually reserved for academic or extracurricular programs, two won approval from local voters last week to beef up security staffing.

Technologies for making schools safer are also being reviewed, from the expanded use of identification cards to one bill in the Legislature that would require "panic buttons" in every school to alert local police of an intruder. Others talked about using smartphones for the same purpose.

That raises the question: What is the state's role in setting some guidelines or requirements. And a familiar follow-up: Who pays?

"There does need to be some basic premises laid down," said Donald Norcross (D., Camden), the Senate sponsor of a bill that would create a task force to consider such questions. "But I also think a place like Camden has very different needs than other parts of my district, and we have to give some leeway."

One area that Norcross said would need state guidance is the possibility of staff or others carrying guns in schools. Must they be active law enforcement? To whom do they report? What will be their legal liability?

"We will need to have some very clear guidelines for any time we have someone with a gun at a school," Norcross said.

He did not hide his view that schools need to strike a balance between safety and becoming what he called "armed fortresses."

The use of armed officers is a topic that Verniero's task force took up, as did the state's existing school safety task force created under Gov. Jon S. Corzine. A report in 2007 included some broad guidelines that any such staff have proper law enforcement training and be under the purview of the local police, not the school staff.

"But there are other liability issues, and questions as to how they would be trained," said Richard Bozza, executive director of the state's superintendents association and member of the task force. "If districts want to take this route, there are questions as to what is the proper way to go."

Bozza said he did not believe a new task force as proposed by Norcross was needed, but he did agree that the state needs to keep the discussions going as strategies, technologies, and attitudes change.

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