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Safety First
At a turning point in the national gun control debate, pressure mounts on educators to keep children out of harm’s way.

by Liz Hunter

On the list of any child’s complaints, going to school is probably at the top. Parents often have to make several attempts at dragging their son or daughter out of bed until the last minute. Once at school, they face a day of academic work and  social interaction, often followed by sports practice or clubs, and then it’s home for dinner and homework. 

Since the beginning of 2018, 23 students and teachers haven’t made it home for dinner. 

Seventeen of those lives were taken on Feb. 14 in a singular school shooting in Parkland, Fla., at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD). The shooter, who was just 19 years old and armed with an AR-15 style semi-automatic weapon, pulled the fire alarm and began shooting as students evacuated the building.

After an event like this, fear consumes us. In the wake of Parkland, schools across the country faced their share of copycat threats, and South Jersey wasn’t immune. Franklin Township and Delsea Regional school districts were closed after teachers and principals received threatening emails. A 10-year-old later admitted to these threats and was charged. Two Delsea Regional High School students were charged with third-degree offenses after they were overheard referencing school violence—comments the students claim were jokes. In Voorhees, an Eastern Regional High School student was arrested and placed on house arrest after being accused of making threats, which the school ultimately investigated and deemed as “gossip,” yet the investigation by the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office remains ongoing. A Cherry Hill East teacher who raised concerns about school security was subsequently suspended, prompting   student protests.

One can only imagine what it’s like to be a student or teacher during a time when schools are targeted on a nearly weekly basis. It’s no longer about not “feeling” like going to school, but it’s actually about being afraid to go.

 “It’s scary, to be honest,” says Ivellise Morales, 17, a junior at Washington Township High School. “My parents growing up never had active shooter drills. Now not only do we have them, but it seems that the tragedies keep escalating. You think, ‘It’ll never happen to my school,’ but the truth is it can happen anywhere.” 

Preparing for the Unthinkable
In response to school shootings, security at schools has been getting tighter and educators are on the front lines training for and leading students through emergency drills, including lockdowns. A month before the shooting at their school, faculty at  MSD met with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office for active shooter training. When the first gun shots rang out, those same teachers immediately did what they had been trained to do. One of those teachers, Jim Gard, shared his experience with Mount Ephraim School District staff during an in-service day. Superintendent  Leslie Koller-Walker contacted Gard, a childhood friend, and asked if  he would Skype in to discuss what he did during the shooting. 

 “We completely changed the agenda of our planned in-service day so we could hear  from him,” says Koller-Walker. “He specifically talked about the training he had gone through in January. One takeaway—something that was huge for me— was keeping his door closed and locked.” 

When the fire alarm first went off at MSD, Gard and his students began evacuating  as normal, until they heard the gun shots. They turned and ran back to the classroom and—as instructed—Gard closed and locked the door. Despite following  procedure, some students later called him a “coward” on Twitter, saying he didn’t open the door for them when they knocked. “He told us, when he went to the door, the students were not there, but if they were there, he didn’t know what he would have done because we are told not to open the door for anyone but  law enforcement,” says Koller-Walker.  “There was real value in hearing this from someone who lived it,” says KollerWalker. “When we practice drills, I always see the struggle in [teachers’] eyes about not  opening doors in a lockdown.” She adds that Gard believes if the school had not gone into immediate lockdown, then more kids may have been left out in the hallways without anywhere to hide. 

Leah Wilson (name has been changed), a Cherry Hill parent who also teaches in a neighboring district, says she can’t reveal every detail of the lockdown training  she has performed, but that door props are removed. “When a lockdown is called, we remove the prop and sweep the hallways to ensure that no students are outside of the classroom,” she says. “We  practice a fire drill and at least one other type of drill every month. I do feel that two drills a month are sufficient, especially in the elementary levels.”

Practice drills like this are mandated, although they can take the form of lockdowns, shelter-in-place or an emergency health  scare, many of which need to be conducted as often as a fire drill. “Each building has updated crisis plans and we practice the premise of what fits into that plan,” says Dr. Scott McCartney, superintendent of Moorestown Township Public Schools. “This could be what to do in the event of an intruder or an event outside of  the school in the community, where we would shelter in place.”

Local law enforcement is often involved in the development, practice and evaluation  of these  drills. In a statement to families and staff, Joseph Bollendorf, superintendent  of Washington Township Public Schools, says real-time drills are practiced twice a month. “Routinely, our local police department observes our active shooter drills to evaluate the efficiency of the drill,” he says.

As much as teachers need to know what steps to execute  during an emergency, they also need to be able to decipher what an actual emergency sounds like. Teachers at Eastern experienced  something relatively unique last month in an active  shooter demonstration by the Voorhees Township Police Department. According to Principal Robert Tull, this training was in the works before the Parkland shooting happened, but they decided to move it up in response to that current event.

Tull notes that a part of t he demonstration questioned  whether teachers could distinguish between a trash can bang versus someone shooting an assault rifle. “Officers fired blanks in the hallways outside of the gym- nasium, and then ran in and shot more right in the gym. It sounded different than when it was in the hallway,” Tull says. “They also told us how to grasp important information quickly, like a description of the shooter.”

Practicing drills only goes so far, however.  Teachers and students must come to terms with the mental preparation as well. “The toughest part, to me, about being in school during this time is thinking about what I would do if an active shooter was in our school,” says Jessica Hatch, 17, a junior at Washington Township High School. “Looking around the classroom to  see where I would hide or thinking about how I would handle myself in that situation is a difficult thought to have while in school. However, I do also believe adults, especially teachers, have some of the same fears we do as students in school.”

Karen O’Neil, a history teacher at Seneca  High School, says she’s as prepared as she can be. “An active shooter situation is something  that no teacher ever wants to face, but every time we practice a drill, the reality sets in that at some point this might not be just a drill. I see the look of concern on my students’ faces when we have a lockdown drill,” she says. “They look to me as their teacher to reassure them that this is just  a drill, nothing to worry about. They want to know what would actually happen if it were a real shooter. I tell them that we would do exactly what we practice, but the reality is that I don’t really know what would happen in a real active shooter situation. No one can be completely   prepared for it, and you would have to react to the situation  as it was unfolding.  … What I am sure of as a teacher though, is that I would do whatever is necessary to protect my students.”

And teachers have literally put themselves between bullets and their students; people like Mary Joy Sherlach, Sandy Hook school psychologist, or MSD football coach Aaron  Feis. But how much more can teachers be asked to do in the classroom to protect students? Some would like to see them carrying guns, including President Donald Trump who suggested (in a tweet) armed teachers should get a yearly bonus, and while it might be a solution embraced in other parts of the country, it’s not likely to come to fruition in New Jersey anytime soon.

The New  Jersey Education Association’s (NJEA) official position is against arming teachers. “NJEA is adamantly opposed to the idea of arming educators as a response to the scourge of gun violence in our public schools. Turning schools into arsenals will put children and staff more at risk of becoming victims of gun violence,” says  NJEA President Marie Blistan in a statement.   Gov. Phil Murphy also opposes the idea, saying “more guns in schools is not the right answer.”

Even O’Neil, who would do anything to protect her students, prefers not to see this pursued. “I would like to see the idea of arming teachers avoided,” she says. “In a high school setting, it is hard to imagine how this could work or be effective. In a high school of nearly 1,200 students, the i dea of a teacher who has never been in an actual situation like this being able to calmly use a weapon without injuring anyone else is hard to conceive.”

In the meantime, as years have passed and shootings continue to happen, schools are implementing different security procedures to limit access to their buildings. From security cameras, ID cards, being buzzed into buildings and regular patrols by armed police officers, schools are pseudo-fortresses.  Parkland has renewed the conversation around many of these security  measures and some schools have responded with additional elements and getting stricter with pre-existing procedures. 

Dr. Carol Birnbohm, superintendent of schools for the Lenape Regional High School District (LRHSD), says school shootings are the darkest nightmare, raising  emotions in the entire community. “The first thing our  school district does to help our students, staff and parents to feel secure, is to connect with them,” she says. “We are a community and we need to listen and respond to all concerns. We make certain our entire staff knows and communicates to students and parents  the security measures we have in place and how we continually assess those measures.”

LRHSD has a security and emergency management coordinator on staff, James Kehoe, who constantly evaluates the security plans and policies and makes recommendations  for changes or updates. He says armed school resource officers (SROs) are assigned to each school. “Recently,  local law enforcement agencies have increased police patrols at all LRHSD schools,” he says. “Commu nications have been made to staff, students and parents that increased police presence may be seen at schools.”

Most school districts in South Jersey seem to be following suit.

Washington Township police are now making routine daily visits to each school while on patrol, conducting occasional walk-arounds with a K-9 unit, something Hatch says makes her feel better. “One of the main safety features in our school that makes me feel the most comfortable is knowing there are officers on patrol every day,” she says. “I feel as if our school does a lot to ensure students feel safe every day by implementing new measures as needed.” 

 “My kids are  confident that when they see cops it’s for their safety,” says Desiree Abrams, a mother of two in Washington Township. “It makes me feel better to know the police are going in with dogs, checking for drugs and weapons. I’m not sure how much you could ask for. I commend them for these safety measures.”

Dr. David Lindenmuth, interim superintendent  for Haddonfield Schools, says there are discussions about upgrades in security. “We’ve discussed, even before Parkland, upgrades and procedures with the local police department, some of which we won’t talk about in public,” he says. “The police are visible and welcome to the district; we want them to feel part of the school community. Conversations like these can’t just happen after a horrific event; it should always be on our mind.”

There is also the financial aspect of heightened security. Schools already on tight budgets must find ways to pay for the safety of everyone in the building. The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation  last month to spend upward of $75 million a year (between 2019 and 2028) on school security and safety training, which might include funds for metal detectors and locks. But there is currently no similar measure being proposed in the Senate. 

Presently, Moorestown only has officers stationed at the high school, borne out of its size and scope, says McCartney, and a school resource officer who visits schools on a daily rotating basis. “It’s been an ongoing discussion about whether we should expand and add class III officers. … There’s a  budget conversation to see how the s tate or federal government might be able to support.” 

Since the beginning of March, fully equipped Cherry Hill Township police have been assigned to full-time patrols at the schools, and will be funded by the township through the end of the school year. Superintendent Dr. Joseph Meloche says this is not sustainable in the long term. The district will also be considering a revision in its policy to arm the campus police officers at both East and West high schools.

Meloche says he is hoping a bond referendum  vote in the fall will approve funding to allow for more robust infrastructure across all 19 schools. In November 2017, the Barclay Early Childhood Center was unveiled as the model for security in the  district. Upgrades include a security vestibule where visitors must  be physically buzzed in, electronic keycards for staff access, cameras on the interior and exterior—for which police have access—and emergency strobe lights. “We’d like to replicate this in our facilities  but there’s a cost associated with that,” Meloche says.

Relying on a bond referendum, which might not pass, is unsettling to some. One teacher who spoke on the subject wished to remain anonymous. “I feel our school is not very secure. Teachers have been asking for changes to be made for quite some time, but we’ve been told the money isn’t there. Now the answer is we’re waiting until the referendum. But we’re spending money on police when our building is not secure; there are doors that don’t close and lock, cameras that don’t work. We have other issues that would seem  to need attention before taking the next step.”

In the interim, Cherry Hill has put a new policy in place requiring all family members to have their student’s ID number and a photo ID in order to access the building  or else be denied access. Visitors—including  alumni and vendors— must have an appointment. For afterschool events or evening concerts, Meloche says  they will work to identify attendees ahead of time and provide a label or tag to wear to show proof that they were checked in.

Wilson, who has two children in the district, says she is very confident in the safety of her kids, adding that the staff makes an effort to get to know all of the adults who come and go, but she doesn’t know if it goes  far enough. “The larger police presence is definitely a good thing and I’m happy to hear that they are not coming and going on a specific schedule,” she says. “However, I’m not sure that having a police officer there part time is going to be the answer to our security issues.  The idea of announcing yourself, your business and presenting ID was largely in place previously. The added need of providing your child’s ID number seems a little unnecessary and I don’t think it solves any problems. These shootings are occurring with people who belong in the buildings, not random people.”

Controversial Conversation
The Parkland shooting has unquestionably motivated the youth in the country. The survivors from MSD have been determined not to let the shooting fade from the news cycle, as  shootings are wont to do. There was just something different about this one and students are vocalizing their concerns not only for school safety, but also on the larger, more controversial issue of gun control. Most notable was last month’s nationwide March for our Lives, organized by MSD students.

A recent Newsela poll of high school students, grades 9-12, showed 54 percent of New Jersey students polled “strongly agree” gun laws in the U.S. should be stricter and 42 percent “strongly agree” the minimum age to buy assault weapons should be raised from 18 to 21. Last month, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill which raises the age to buy a firearm, but also provides funding to potentially arm teachers. 

In a statement, Gov. Murphy says the N.J. Assembly will be voting on “bills to expand background checks, lower magazine capacity, ban armor-piercing bullets and ensure individuals deemed by a health care professional as a threat to themselves or others don’t have access to a   gun. I am committed  to their ultimate passage, among other measures, so I can sign them into law.”

Schools—some more than others— have been open to the questions raised by students in this time of unrest. “The students [in my social studies classes] had many questions about what had occurred,  and they recognized right away that this is something that could happen at any school—that there wasn’t really anything different about the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School than students at any high school across the country,” says Seneca’s O’Neil. “In my 14 years of teaching high school students, I have not seen an event affect teenagers quite like this one.”

 “After the tragedy, my friends and I have not been silent,” says Morales. “I think because there was actual [social media]  footage inside the classrooms … it hit us even more. We’ve talked about how gun laws need to be enforced to prevent  anything like Parkland from happening again.”

Across South Jersey students peacefully participated in the National School Walkout on March 14 in a variety of ways. Students in the LRHSD planned a series of events and did so by collaborating with administrators,  and all events were voluntary. Some of the events included a silent, 17minute  memorial walk, a reading of the victims’ names, question and answer session with the school resource officer and more.  Both the Washington Township School District and police department coordinated efforts for 17-minute demonstrations  where students linked arms at the high school and formed a human peace symbol at the middle school.

 “I  am proud of our students and the voice they presented,” says McCartney. “They play a role in this conversation. … Instead of focusing on just 17 minutes, they said, ‘How can we reach out to 17 kids we don’t normally talk to,’ and make people feel more comfortable.”

Community vigilance and mental health awareness are crucial, as so many warning signs go unnoticed or unreported. “The fact that students are reaching a point where they feel that these guns are their only way to solve their problems is so concerning,” says Wilson. “We need to find a way to help these students understand that guns are never a good answer to anything and we need to find a way to help stop kids from getting to this point.”

There’s no easy solution for  this epidemic, but creating a more compassionate environment, where children aren’t bullied or  ostracized, is a hopeful path to take. Hatch says the students at WTHS have discussed how “small acts of kindness” could have a positive impact. “I believe it is important to spread a message like that to our student body,” she says, “because if we could all be nicer to each other, it could create a great sense of community in our school.”  


Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 1 (April 2018).

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