As the new school year begins, many students in New Jersey will face new procedures and security measures that have been put into place as a reaction to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown last December. Past president of the New Jersey Association of School Psychologists Dr. Joseph Colford told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that he supports increased safety measures, but doesn’t believe using armed guards in schools will make children feel safer.
Colford hopes school districts implement unobtrusive security measures like buzzers where visitors check in to ensure people who don’t belong in the building don’t get in. “My concern is what I’ve read in the paper from time to time is that schools are considering putting armed guards in their schools. And that is something that I think does cause more stress in children and research suggests that it makes them feel less safe as opposed to more safe,” he said.
Colford believes armed guards don’t belong in schools. “Armed guards belong outside, crossing kids, maybe greeting kids as they arrive on the campus. But in the school building, it’s a place where school staff belongs, not armed guards,” he said.
Schools now practice lock-down drills in addition to fire drills, which started before the shooting in Newtown. Colford said the drills have become part of the school culture. “I think on a day-to-day basis, that doesn’t resonate very strongly with school-aged children. Because I think that’s part of their routine now,” he said.
Ideally, Colford said schools should create an environment that’s very welcoming and accepting so that children feel more connected to the school. “One thing we found out is people who tend to do untoward things in school don’t feel a sense of connectedness to the school, what we call school connectedness or school bondedness. So it’s important as I said in a perfect world that students do feel connected,” he explained. “And if they do, they’re less inclined to do something untoward in schools. And also, other students who get wind of something untoward that might happen know that they have friendly people to go to in the schools to prevent those things from happening.”
According to Colford, the incident in Newtown is an outlier. “When we talk about school shootings, we tend to define school shootings as shootings that are enacted by a student in the school who brings a weapon to school. The Newtown incident, as tragic and as horrible as it was, was really an outsider who forced his way into the school. So the shooting just happened to take place in a school as opposed to it being a true school shooting as we define that,” he said.
Parents often turn to experts for advice after tragedies strike. Colford said he was working in a middle school during the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when many parents came to pick up their children from school. He advises against that.
“My advice to them was to keep their children in school because being around familiar faces — teachers and friends — and familiar routines is very soothing. Going home and sitting in front of a TV watching the towers come down over and over again was not the best of all possible decisions for parents to make,” Colford said. “So we always advise parents in events like Newtown not to dwell on it, not to keep the TV on night and day, not to resonate with great fear because your children pick up on that fear. Children especially, in very ambiguous situations, look for adults for guidance.”
As for the 2013-2014 school year, Colford hopes school districts make security measures as unobtrusive as possible as they welcome children back. “Luckily there’s been a great distance from Newtown. It’s been nine months. We’re some distance away geographically,” he said. “So hopefully that is something that’s past history and students can start the school year anew.”