School safety issues brought home by Florida tragedy

Authorities have plans, say updates always needed


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  • Ghosts of school shootings past: A mother runs with her children as police canvass homes in the area following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012. 27 people died in that school shooting, including 18 children. AP Photo/Jessica Hill




  • An AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, like the one used by the Parkland, Florida gunman




By Rose Sgarlato and Laurie Gordon

— Local school officials and law enforcement are responding to the recent tragedy at a Florida high school by informing parents, students and the community at large that safety measures are in effect to counteract violent assaults, and that further steps to protect school communities are continuingly being developed.

Nonetheless, authorities added that, when it comes down to the actions of one troubled person with access to military-like weapons — as was the case at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Memorial High School in Parkland — there is only so much that can be done regarding prevention.

‘We can prepare as best as possible, but we can’t eliminate a threat,” said Sparta Chief of Police Neil Spidaletto.

On Feb. 14, a 19-year-old expelled student entered one building of the large high school complex and opened fire on students and faculty with a legally purchased semi-automatic assault rifle. Fourteen students and 3 faculty members were killed, and dozens more injured.

"Like the rest of America we are horrified at the events in Florida,” said Michael A. Rossi Jr., superintendent of Sparta Public Schools. “It seems there are constant reminders of the fragility of life and continuing concern for keeping our students, employees and visitors safe. We are planning a community event in spring to speak on safety and security issues on campus and in our Township.”

Eric Danielson, chief of the Andover Township Police Department, said police and school officials “have already set a meeting to review our current procedures and planning for various types of events.”

“School officials and our department are continually looking for ways to target-harden our schools,” Danielson said.

“The tragic events in Parkland reinforce what our top priority is every day, which is to provide our students with a safe learning environment,” said Brian Bosworth, superintendent of Kittatinny Regional High School. “While awful events like this bring school safety into the national spotlight, educators are and have been taking this on each day. We are confident in our security plans that are in place, but believe me when I say it is an ongoing process that is constantly being evaluated. We work very closely with local and state law enforcement to ensure our school is safe.”

Kennedy Greene, superintendent of Newton Public Schools, echoed Bosworth on educators’ intent and readiness.

“Whether it is a concert in Las Vegas, a church in Charleston, a nightclub in Orlando, a movie theater in Aurora, or one of dozens of schools throughout our great country, we continue to be reminded that we can never stop being vigilant in protecting our fellow citizens, especially our children,” Greene said. “The safety and security of our schools and children remain a top priority for me and our staff members.”

Sussex County Sheriff Michael Strada said his office works with local schools and recommends "best practices" as they pertains to the security of their facilities.

“Our office performs random ‘walk throughs’ which includes a uniformed presence creating a professional rapport with the staff and students,” Strada said. “ The Sussex County Sheriff's Office additionally provides approximately 200 hours of LEAD (Law Enforcement Against Drugs) instruction to ten schools, where a uniformed officer would be present on school grounds.”

Strada, Danielson and Spidaletto all said that the county police forces, in concert with the New Jersey State Police, train for emergency situations like those at Parkland, as well as other possibilities, and coordinate training and response strategies among themselves.

Spidaletto said there has been heightened awareness and specific actions taken towards school safety among law enforcement, starting with the Columbine incident in 1999.

A few years ago, the State Police met with the NJ School Board Association and made safety and security recommendations for all districts to follow with all coordinating police departments. Known as the School Safety and Security Plan, this ‘manual’ of procedures and protocols in place must be reviewed and updated “any time weaknesses in the plan are identified during a drill, exercise or an actual emergency event.”

A few known measures in Sparta are: mandated lockdown drills that occur several times a year, and cameras located all over the schools that feed right into the Sparta Police Department.

“We coordinate the drills at least four times a year with Dr. Rossi and all the schools,” Spidaletto said. “And I would like to say that Dr.Rossi has done a lot of security upgrades.”

One of those upgrades involves the county acquiring a grant for a special mapping system called a Collaborative Response Graphic (CRG), defined as “ a highly functional visual planning and response tool.”

Essentially, the CRG, according to an informational packet from manufacturer Critical Response Group, makes the school complexes look simple: It allows faculty, staff and first responders to rapidly understand the layout of the facility regardless of familiarity with the building.

“CRG gives us a precise location very quickly should something occur,” Spidaletto said. “The map is done at Sparta High School. The next step is coordinating it to the cars.”

The mapping system will be rolled out to all other schools in the county, Spidaletto said.

Another key factor to the success of any effective law enforcement is training, and in this case, close-quarters training comes into play. On that front, Spidaletto is exploring a sophisticated Portable Virtual Training System.

“Having the best trained officers who can do what they do best is always our goal,” he said. “We have great things in place and we are looking to do more.”

In the spring, the Township will see the return of a School Resource Officer (SRO). This is a trained, sole officer dedicated to the schools. There was such a person in place until budget cuts around 2008 eliminated the role.

“The SRO will be one of our armed, trained officers based in the high school, but will have a vested interest in all of the schools,” Spidaletto said.

Last, but certainly not least, authorities emphasized that the public can be of great assistance to the police.

“We encourage people to tell us any information,” Spidaletto said. “If you see suspicious, delinquent behavior or concerning statements coming from anyone. please let us know. Anything you report by calling in to the police can remain anonymous. You can also report on our Facebook page too.”

“What we have always stressed to our students, staff and community is that everyone must be vigilant,” Superintendent Bosworth said. “One of the biggest safety features is communication. It is imperative that there is an open line of communication so that we don't miss any warning signs.”

Newton Superintendent Greene addressed parents and guardians.

“Yyou can help us by becoming aware of signs and symptoms of violence as published by the American Psychological Association in its guide to Warning Signs of Youth Violence at www.apa.org/helpcenter/warning-signs.aspx.



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