Good afternoon Chairwoman Ruiz, Chairwoman Lampitt and members of the committee. Thank you for the opportunity to speak on school security. There is no topic more important. I speak to you today as Executive Director of the Garden State Coalition, but also as an 18-year Board of Education member. For 16 years I have been president of that board. I have listened to emotional testimony from parents following 9/11, Sandy Hook, Parkland and all the school shootings in between. After Sandy Hook, the parent of a first grader came to our board meeting and asked us directly, “Can you guarantee that my child will be safe in school?” I knew then and I know now that no matter what we do and what policies we put in place, not one of us here today can make that guarantee.
In the years since Columbine and especially since Sandy Hook, every district that I know of has worked on security upgrades. We never forget our obligation to create educational spaces that are welcoming and nurturing to our students and community, while being as secure as possible. We are also very aware of the situations that we cannot control, including recess, outdoor sporting events, field trips and school arrival/dismissal times.
So what can we do? The following are a few suggestions:
- Create situation-specific solutions. In New Jersey our strength is in our diversity, but that means that there is no one security solution that works for every school district. Trying to legislate a single solution or solutions will not serve the best interests of our students. Local districts should have the power to decide which security measures work best for their students and their communities.
- Understand what is already in place: Many security tools and procedures already exist. The most important tool currently in districts’ hands is the annual Memorandum of Agreement between the district and local law enforcement agencies. This has helped draw districts and police agencies together. Used properly, the Memorandum enhances communication and cooperation.
- Resources: Mandates without resources are hollow, forcing school districts to choose between education and security. Give districts the resources they need, either via cap waivers or increased security grants, to pay for the security upgrades that local educators, boards and communities believe will help ensure student safety.
- Security is more than compliance: Whatever measures you take, do not create additional compliance responsibilities for educators. Increased data collection and complex reporting requirements never made anyone safer and may have the opposite effect by taking up educators’ precious time.
- Mental Health: Include mental health services and personnel under allowable expenses for security-related cap waivers and/or grants. One trait that seems to characterize the majority of school violence perpetrators is loss and alienation. Give us the resources to hire the professionals and services we need to deal with students who suffer from these all-too-common conditions. As with learning deficits, early identification of emotional trauma and psychological damage may well do much more for school security than doors, scanners, cameras and bulletproof glass.
Many times, when school shootings happen, I hear, “the schools did nothing,” or “the schools didn’t do enough” to prevent tragedy. As a board member and an education advocate, I know that there is always more that we can do, but no one can do it all. Parenting is an act of faith. Sending children to school is an act of faith. Being an educator is an act of faith. Being a legislator or a local school board member and meeting in a public place, sometimes with a hostile crowd present, is an act of faith. In our efforts to find security solutions, let’s use compassion and not give in to the temptation to turn on each other. If we do, the destructive forces present—inside and outside our public institutions—will have won.