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Millville schools put school safety front with presentation for front office staff

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Back to School Panic Buttons

Brent Kiger, Olathe Public Schools’ director of safety service, displays a panic-alert button at Olathe South High School on Aug. 19 in Olathe, Kansas.

MILLVILLE — With students set to return to the classroom just months after another mass school shooting, Millville schools are among those working to ensure all staff and faculty are as prepared as possible to respond to a crisis.

Millville Public Schools hosted a school-security training presentation Tuesday for its front office personnel. The session, which reviewed policies, protocols and strategies that staff could adopt to keep students safe, was presented by the Office of School Preparedness & Emergency Planning, a unit within the state Department of Education.

Superintendent Tony Trongone said he recognized that the front office would be critical to responding to any crisis situation and wanted to ensure they were well prepared. He asked them to give feedback about their experiences and weigh in on how the district can incorporate best practices for school safety.

“Ultimately, you know you and your principal run the building,” Trongone said to those gathered for the presentation. “During a crisis, you are a key person in it.”

Presenters from the Office of School Preparedness & Emergency Planning instructed front office staff to have a preexisting plan of action for different kinds of emergencies. They said being extensively prepared could help ensure that front office staff would be quick to identify a threat and able to take decisive action in response and execute under stress.

Part of those plans include being familiar with what kinds of emergencies should prompt what kinds of responses and identifying places to which front office staff can relocate when a lockdown or shelter-in-place protocol is in effect.

Offering strategies

The presentation reviewed interventions implemented by some school districts that could positively affect school safety. Having drop-off bins for forgotten school items such as lunches could obviate the need for some people to enter parts of the school building, thus enhancing safety.

It has also been found that signs posted outside doors alerting people to a school’s policies for entering the building can help reduce unauthorized entry.

Another strategy that could be useful for some districts is to issue school ID cards for parents or guardians authorized for entry.

Such an intervention would be particularly useful in areas where many parents or guardians lack driver’s licenses or other forms of government-issued IDs.

Critical to any school-safety policy is identifying who can and cannot enter the building, the presenters said, adding that front office staff should have a system to keep close track of who is authorized to enter the building, for what purpose and for what period of time. This includes parents and guardians and the family members of faculty and staff, who may have extenuating circumstances that make them a threat to school safety. Ninety-one percent of people who attack a school in some fashion, presenters said, are not strangers to the school’s staff, faculty or students.

The presentation featured several incidents from across the state and country in which interventions by front office personnel could have prevented a tragedy. In many of those incidents, the perpetrator of violence had some prior relationship to the school.

Scott Parvin, the chief of security for the Millville school district, emphasized that it was the prerogative of those working the front office to refuse entry to anyone perceived as a threat to school safety.

Separately, Parvin noted that the district had recently installed enhanced panic buttons that school personnel could use if they felt it necessary.

Nationwide concern

The training in Millville and action from the state comes as schools across the country are enhancing their own safety protocols.

Some school districts have spent tens of thousands of dollars to install new security devices, including new alarm systems, barriers, security cameras, metal detectors, bulletproof glass and new door-locking mechanisms. One suburban Kansas City school district is set to spend $2.1 million over five years to install a new alert system.

Some school-security experts have criticized parts of this nationwide spending as security theater. They say it would be more beneficial for schools to review basic safety protocols, such as entry policies and why it is important to keep outside doors locked.

The U.S. Congress and the New Jersey Legislature, meanwhile, have passed new gun-control measures in an attempt to lower the chances of school shootings.

These efforts to fortify school security come as violence in schools has become a more salient issue.

There are indications from groups such as the National Association of School Resource Officers that various kinds of violent behaviors, ranging from fighting to school shootings, have increased over the past year, leaving parents, teachers and students feeling more vulnerable. Educators and psychologists have attributed the rise in violence to mental health conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic. (U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has cautioned not to stigmatize those with mental health issues as being particularly prone to violence, which research indicates is not the case.) Nevada’s Clark County School District, for example, had one of its teachers beaten unconscious in her classroom in April, prompting the district to install new panic buttons.

The increase in attention to school security also follows the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24. The attack killed 19 children, two teachers and resulted in the death of the shooter. The 376 law-enforcement officers on the scene waited 72 minutes to confront and kill the shooter, prompting criticism and self-reflection from school officials across the country. It was the deadliest school shooting since the December 2012 attack at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and six adults and resulted in the death of the shooter.

Having a plan

The Millville presentation emphasized how intelligence about circumstances surrounding students, teachers or staff members and their relationship to the school could help making classrooms safer. It noted the importance of districts forming threat-assessment teams so they could keep track of possible situations that could lead to an emergency situation.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law Aug. 1 requiring public school districts, charter schools and renaissance schools all develop their own threat-assessment teams by the 2023-2024 school year. The teams are to help teachers and other school officials identify “students of concern,” evaluate possible threats of violence and implement strategies to reduce the chance of violence. They will be multidisciplinary, and each one must include a teacher; principal or senior administrator; school resource officer or other law-enforcement liaison; designated school-safety specialist; and a school counselor, social worker, psychologist or other school employee with counseling experience.

Acting Commissioner of Education Angelica Allen-McMillan commented on the new law in an Aug. 1 news release. She emphasized how school employees were the most critical component of school safety.

“No one better understands the vulnerabilities of New Jersey’s school communities than those who work there every day, including our teachers, administrators, school counselors, school safety specialists, and resource officers,” Allen-McMillan said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Chris Doyle

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