Since a school shooting in Florida Feb. 14 killed 17 people, there has been increasing parent concern around the country regarding the safety and security of their children at school.
Robbinsville Township is no different, with parents demanding the district take measures to secure schools. This outcry mobilized the community, with the February Board of Education meeting being by one estimate the most attended in the past five years.
But the Robbinsville school district and Robbinsville Township had been working on enhancing school safety even before the shooting in Parkland elevated the subject into the national consciousness. The day after the meeting, township and school officials announced one fruit of that effort. Starting in September, there will be a school resource officer in each of the township’s three schools. The school district and township will split the cost.
The district also has updates planned to school infrastructure and technology to improve security, including a way for the community to anonymously report concerns or potential threats to the district.
“This is the busiest that we’ve ever been in dealing with this issue,” school board president Richard Young said. “Many of us on the board have or have had children in the township, and we’re on the board because we want to do what’s right for our children, the staff, and our community. Hands down, the number one priority is maintaining safety. We hope that parents understand that our district takes nothing for granted. This is a top priority for parents and students, and it’s a top priority for the board and administration.”
The district’s top concern is to ensure a police presence in each of its schools. Currently, Robbinsville Police has one officer—Ed Vincent—posted at Robbinsville High School, with regular visits to the elementary and middle schools. Vincent has a K9 partner, Rigo, who is trained in explosives detection. While the school shooting in Florida intensified the demand for security, the township and Board of Education had previously budgeted for an additional school resource officer for the 2018-2019 school year. However, Parkland changed things.
“After the recent tragedy, we worked with the Mayor [Dave] Fried and Police Chief Chris Nitti so that we could secure another school resource officer to have presence at each of the three buildings,” superintendent Dr. Kathie Foster said.
Foster applauded the efforts of Vincent and said the students recognize him as a part of the school community.
“Kids feel comfortable with him, but he also helps maintain some presence in our schools,” Foster said.
The resource officers will serve various roles at the schools. Along with following the duties of a regular police officer, they will also teach the DARE drug prevention program and also help with school investigations.
“Most importantly, they are deterrents,” Young said. “Because if someone knows there is an armed police officer, permanently near the school, they will hopefully be less likely to engage in dangerous behavior.”
The district has been focused on school security and safety since the mass-casualty shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in in Connecticut in 2012. After Sandy Hook, the district did a top-to-bottom school security review, Young said, with Vigilant Resources International in New York City conducting a comprehensive study, which included interviewing community members and local law enforcement. This yielded a series of suggestions on how Robbinsville Schools could increase security.
School district officials worked to put VRI’s recommendations into practice immediately, according to an article in the June 2014 Robbinsville Advance, including installing biometric scanners on the doors of the schools and launching a more rigorous visitor management protocol. Double-locked vestibules were installed at Pond Road Middle School and Sharon Elementary. Security cameras were put into place at all the schools. And the district created its first school resource officer position.
Young said the district also instituted a monthly security drill for all Robbinsville schools, in which students and faculty develop familiarity with the procedure for an active shooter or other malicious scenarios in the school.
“We’ve been working to strengthen our school’s infrastructure and technology, as well as just build that culture of safety across schools, which requires all our personnel to pay attention to students and develop safe practices. So it’s been ongoing for many years, but when something like this happens, it’s important for all of us to come together and reflect on what are we doing well, and where can we strengthen our schools,” Foster said.
Much of this ongoing work regarding safety is discussed in the school security subcommittee of the Board of Education, which consists of administrators, board members, the police chief and the resource officer.
“We met recently, and we looked at the recommendations of our principals and our leadership teams,” Young said. “After looking at all recommendations, we’re going to make a plan and enact what we can,” Young said.
While the additional resource officers are the biggest planned security change, Foster mentioned plans for future technology and infrastructure updates to further ensure safety. She and Young would not elaborate out of concern “bad actors” would know what the district’s plans and protocols are.
“We hope that the public can understand that,” Young said. “Since Sandy Hook and now, as a result of the shooting in Florida, we are doubling down and are fully committed to doing what will keep our children and staff safe.”
But the district is counting on people to play the primary role in keeping its schools safe. For example, Young called the faculty the “defensive line.”
“We have young children who rely on their teachers to keep them safe in a bad situation,” Young said. “We encourage teachers to be mindful and to listen. If they see or hear something that needs to be investigated, we highly encourage them to do so. Teachers are the ones who are dealing with our students each and every day, so we want them to be part of our efforts to keep our students safe.”
While both clearly supported the importance of faculty in protecting students, Young noted that the Board of Education has not yet taken a formal position on President Trump’s notion of having armed teachers in schools, and that the board will wait for state and federal lawmakers to make that decision.
“Our concern right now is that we have a police presence in our school, and that we engage and deploy the best technologies to help keep our children safe,” Young said. “We are committed to doing what we can.”
Meanwhile, parents and community members also play an important role as watchdogs, following the ‘See Something, Say Something’ national campaign. This could be contacting the police or district should a concern arise, but the district also plans to have a way for people to report anonymously in the near future.
“Parents and students are often the first line of defense, and social media has been an indicator for what’s to come,” Young said. “So we’re asking students and parents, if they see something on social media, to let us know. No threat is taken lightly. Most importantly, we implore people to take action, to listen to their children’s conversations, to talk to other parents and students about what’s going on, and if they see any suspicious behavior, then let us know. We have zero tolerance for not doing the right thing in this area.”
While the school district hopes to ensure safety from malicious actors, they do not want that to take away their focus on diversity of ideas, Young said.
“We live in a diverse state and town, and our schools should provide a holistic environment of nurtured learning that supports this diversity,” he said. “We want to maintain a culture that’s open to opinions, and learn to accept those around us, whether we feel they’re right or wrong. As Americans, that’s the foundation of who we are.”