NJ Spotlight

Jill Marino is scared for her son Jaxson’s life. The second-grader attends school at Parkview Elementary in Westville and with the nearly weekly reports of school shootings unfolding across the country, Marino says she will do whatever it takes to make sure Jaxson comes home safe every day.

“When Sandy Hook happened, I lost all of the oxygen in my lungs for days,” Marino said, referring to the 2012 elementary school shooting. After the tragedy at Parkland, FL, in February, she set up a Facebook group for New Jersey parentsconcerned about school safety to talk about what they can do to protect their kids. “All of us are trying to be involved and make sure none of this ever happens again anywhere. But statistics are not on our side,” she added.

With concern over school safety growing, the Legislature just added an additional $500 million to a proposed bond issue for vo-tech and community colleges. The bond — now totaling $1 billion — is expected to be on the November ballot. It will set aside $500 million for school security upgrades at K-12 buildings. The bipartisan legislation calls on acting Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet to develop procedures, project plans, and criteria for school security grants, without requiring the schools to match funds. This additional funding could go a long way to help schools upgrade their security systems.

New Jersey already has some of the strictest gun laws on the books, but some advocates and parents say schools should be “target hardening” or strengthening their defenses from the outside in. Schools are looking to private security companies to provide them with technology like metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and military-grade imaging capabilities, with the hope of deterring potential criminals, delaying shooters, and disrupting their destruction by quickly alerting law enforcement.

School security task forces

In the years immediately following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook, the New Jersey School Boards Association and the state Legislature under Gov. Chris Christie each convened a separate school security task force to study and make recommendations for security improvements. These task forces — the NJSBA task force and the New Jersey School Security Taskforce (NJSST) — were made up of representatives from the state board of education, School Development Authority, Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, New Jersey Education Association, and other major players in education. Both groups released reports that recommended architectural design changes for schools, more comprehensive emergency protocols, and upgrades in school security technology — including surveillance systems and secure vestibules. The NJSBA’s report is currently being updated according to spokesperson Frank Belluscio, but the legislative activity since the report’s publication has addressed few of its 45 original recommendations. And funding to support those recommendations has been slow to come.

While legislative action has been slow, some schools are taking it upon themselves to harden their perimeters and institute some of the recommendations.

At Parkview, Marino said, visitors must be buzzed in through the main entrance where a security camera can clearly see them. She said there is also talk of an architectural change to build a vestibule where visitors must pass through two locked doors to gain access to the school. Too often, she said, people trying to be courteous hold the door open for those behind them, completely eliminating the point of the buzzer and lock system.

“One day I was walking in and I saw a woman in front of me look back with a pained expression. She said, ‘I’m sorry but in light of everything that’s happening, I’m going to shut the door.’” Marino said. “And I said ‘Shut it. Good.’”

Collecting stories

The Senate and Assembly education committees as well as the State Board of Education have been holding public hearings and meetings to collect stories like Marino’s from the community and experts in the field of school security. Everyone wants to know, what should we be doing better?

Kevin DiPatri, president of K.D. National Force Security and retired New Jersey State Police captain who testified at a legislative hearing recently, said schools across the state are not nearly as safe and secure as they could be.

“What keeps me up at night? Knowing that my children and everyone’s children are extremely vulnerable,” DiPatri said.

Where there are fears, private companies are stepping up to fill the need and schools are working to find the funds to protect their students. Cost concerns associated with the technology and the manpower required to operate them, however, have slowed the process significantly.

For Marino, and many parents like her, cost should not be a concern she said.

“If (schools) need fundraising, I will find a way to make fundraising happen. I've got grit. I'll bust my ass. I'll find the money,” Marino said. “All I want is to keep my kid safe.”

Armored schools

In a recent NJ Spotlight poll, 11 percent of respondents said they favor “fortifying our schools” by implementing metal detectors, bullet-resistant glass on windows and doors, and armed guards. But outfitting a school with these protections requires funding; private security companies specializing in school protection are pitching their products and services to K-12 facilities across the state. They can be expensive, but the cost of employees to run these systems can even be higher.

Patrick Chrustinsky, president of Perfect Connections Inc., a private security-system company based in Somerville, said he’s noticed a slight uptick in schools inquiring about security devices in the weeks following the Parkland shooting. His company only deals with private, charter, and parochial schools (which are smaller and generally have more centralized control over their budgets); however, he was able to give some insight into what questions schools of all sizes across New Jersey are asking.

Chrustinsky said the most common request is for full 24/7 surveillance packages including cameras and optional livestream capabilities to be shared with law enforcement. These systems typically range from $15,000 to $25,000, depending on the number of floors, classrooms, and gymnasiums. For a public school with multiple floors and gyms, the cost for a system like the kind Perfect Connections provides could cost more than $100,000.

Fewer options

While private schools with less floor space may find it easier to purchase such systems, public schools are left with far fewer options.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice guide for school-security technology, walkthrough metal detectors like the kind used in schools in Bayonne usually run anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000, but the real costs come from personnel. The guide notes that for just one school with about 2,000 students, the metal detector requires nine security officers for approximately two hours each morning to run the equipment and operate wand scanners. Those officer costs add up quickly.

Time constraints (it can take more than one hour to screen 1,000 people), space constraints, and student concerns further complicate the issue. During the New Jersey School Security Taskforce’s public hearings in 2014, it reported encountering students who “expressed concern that the deployment of metal detectors made them feel as though they were to blame for school violence.” Indeed, school officials in cities and urban areas in particular are wary of turning a place of education into a fortress where students fall under suspicion and grow resentful of police officers searching their bags and subjecting them to pat-downs.

Schools under glass

Bulletproof glass is often mentioned as another layer of protection for schools. But replacing every window in a public school with bullet-resistant barriers can cost upward of $1 million. Companies have instead begun selling bulletproof school supplies like whiteboards, backpacks, and clipboards that teachers can use to shield students during an attack.

Some schools have even given high-tech biometric recognition systems a shot. Several schools in New Jersey piloted eye-scanner technology provided by Iris ID (a Cranbury-based security company) in the early 2000s, using grants of $370,000 from the Justice Department.

Those pilot programs were short-term endeavors, and most participants came away pleased with the overall success of the systems. But they raised many more security questions than answers: Who owns the data collected by an iris scanner? In today’s landscape of frequent data hacks, what happens if someone gains access to thousands of fingerprints and other hyperspecific biometric information?

In light of these cost issues and privacy questions, the NJSST recommended against adopting biometrics, for now.

Military-grade imaging

A more common option adopted by several counties across the state is military-grade imaging handled by the county prosecutor’s office.

One of the biggest private contractors doing this work in New Jersey is Critical Response Group (CRG). It employs the same technology used by Seal Team Six to capture and kill al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, deployed to schools in Ocean, Sussex, Warren, and several other counties.

CRG provides an extremely accurate and detailed school map tied to a phone or tablet app that first responders can access quickly and remotely. If a shooter were to enter a building, firefighters, cops, school resource officers, and any other law enforcement professional on the scene could pull up the application, immediately locate the individual and communicate that location to every other responder on the scene by way of a battleship-like grid system.

“If the shooter is at square B5,” CRG’s Chief Operating Officer Keith Germain said, “everyone can look at their maps and easily find B5.”

According to Germain, in the confusion and high-stress environment of a school shooting, precise coordination and standardized protocol across all first responding units is crucial. CRG’s tech is currently being used in over 200 schools across the country, and he hopes it will spread to more. Germain is also Barnegat Township police chief, and as a law enforcement professional, he said nothing compares to battle-tested technology.

“There have been so many different attempts to solve the [school security] problem. Everybody is taking different whacks at it, but no one has solved it,” Germain said. “What we're doing has been tested. It has been used thousands of times in war.”

While CRG creates the graphic, BAE Systems (a global defense, security, and aerospace company) houses everything on its servers. This is where the cost comes in. The cloud-based server alone can range from $35,000 to $50,000. Ocean County purchased its server using forfeiture funds, according to the prosecutor’s office.

In Warren county, the cost was a big concern at first. “That dollar figure really knocked me out of my chair,” Richard Burke, Warren county prosecutor said.

Burke said he worked with schools and towns to come up with a payment plan that fit their budgets. Each town contributed around $1,500 and the rest of the server cost was supplied by the prosecutor’s office, mostly from forfeiture funds.

“Potential problems like a school shooting are not just law enforcement issues, they are community problems,” Burke said, noting Warren county has committed to sharing the cost as long as it keeps students safe and law enforcement prepared.

Finding funding

Funding these advanced security systems is not always as easy as it has been in Warren and Ocean counties. For areas where forfeiture funds and town contributions are not enough, schools must seek out other sources.

Around 400 schools in the state use safety-grant money provided by the New Jersey Schools Insurance Group (NJSIG), an insurance fund for public school districts. According to William Mayo, NJSIG executive director, those 400 schools are NJSIG members and pay membership fees from which the grant money is drawn. CRG is a preapproved purchase under that safety grant, making it a viable option for those who receive a grant. Mayo said this year, they have given out nearly $4 million in grant money.

For schools without grant money, funding security systems often comes down to the discretion of the local school boards. A common complaint from school officials is the state’s 2 percent tax levy cap on school budgets creates a challenge in financing security enhancements. The additional $500 million approved by the Legislature could alleviate some of that pressure however.

On the state level, New Jersey’s school finance law, the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, provides a per pupil allotment for “security aid.” For 2018-2019, Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget proposal includes a line item of close to $266 million for security aid for public schools (a $66 million increase over last year’s amount) and $11 million for nonpublic schools.

According to a New Jersey School Board Association report, 55 percent of districts said they fund security enhancements through their operating budgets, and 4.6 percent said they look to school construction grants and bond proceeds to build new doors, locks, and vestibules.

Public school prisons

But armoring schools is only half the battle, according to Bayonne superintendent Michael Wako. The other half, he said, is maneuvering students through the new procedures quickly and without creating the feeling of a prison.

Bayonne schools have nearly mastered the art of locking down, now that high school and elementary schools are equipped with state-of-the-art walkthrough metal detectors, wands, magnetic locks on doors, ID card scanners, and standalone surveillance cameras with livestream capabilities.

Wako said getting thousands of students into school safely and quickly despite the advanced security protocol is a feat borne out of necessity.

“We live in a different world now,” Wako said, referring to the frequency of school shooting events.

In 1996, a tragic murder at Bayonne High School drove then-principal Wako, to install metal detectors, cameras, and a sophisticated ID card swipe system throughout the school. He said the money came because of the tragedy, and now they’re finding ways to upgrade systems and expand them to other district schools with the use of state grant money and local board funds.

Wako said after more than 20 years, parents and students have come to see the locks and cameras as a natural part of the education experience.

“It’s not only about the hardware and cameras and all that material,” Wako said. “You have to have a positive school climate if you want to be safe. You must work on ensuring that everyone has that feeling of being safe and secure in a welcoming and positive environment … then (walking through metal detectors) becomes second nature.”

For Jill Marino, metal detectors and security vestibules might go a long way in delivering some peace of mind while her son is at school, but she said there’s always more that can be done. And she won’t rest until shootings become a thing of the past.

“I don’t want this to happen in my community,” Marino said. “If anything were to happen to my son, just plan a double funeral.”

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