By Briana Vannozzi
“We know that little else matters if you can’t walk down the street, step out your front door or attend school without fear of being a victim of crime,” said Camden Mayor Dana Redd.
The problem isn’t new. It’s just changing shape and size. Keeping our kids safe in one of the most sacred institutions of American life. It’s no secret schools have become a prime location for security issues.
Statewide out of approximately 1.3 million public school students, there were more than 21,000 incidents of violence, vandalism, bullying and use of a weapon for the 2012-2013 school year, according to the Department of Education.
It’s a battle administrators know well, especially in Camden, where often just getting to school is enough of a challenge.
“If you were to poll our families, which we’ve done, that’s the first thing they check. So they think about safety before they think about extracurricular activities, before they think about any other quality of a school, including academic performance,” said Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard.
This year, Rouhanifard is unveiling major upgrades to the city’s two largest high schools.
“This high tech pilot is going to utilize technology to integrate smart doors and smart cameras into our two high schools so that if those doors stay open and somebody were to enter or leave the building inappropriately, a camera would be able to monitor that activity,” he said.
On a recent tour, we got a behind-the-scenes look. Nearly 100 cameras in each. Some with panoramic views. They’re closely monitored with security officers at the ready for dispatch.
“This particular system has anywhere between 200 and 500 functions,” said Anthony Bland.
In New Jersey, more than 100 districts use cameras and surveillance monitoring systems. Camden is the first to go district wide.
“The pilot also makes use of swipe cards or badges that will control access to those entering or exiting the building,” Rouhanifard said.
The city also rolled out a safe corridor program, routes designated as safe havens should the students need them on their journey to and from school.
“New Jersey is very advanced in terms of the security in its schools,” said New Jersey School Boards Association Spokesperson Frank Belluscio.
The New Jersey School Boards Association represents the 581 local boards of education within the state and some 81 charter schools. It was almost two years ago when the governor called for the creation of a school security task force. Belluscio has been leading a survey to find out what districts need, the results of which will be published this October.
“Number one was close circuit cameras. We also saw school resource officers the second or third item on the list. So there’s a desire to make these changes but the school districts have to pick and choose,” said Belluscio.
That’s because funding is tight. Schools operate under the 2 percent tax cap, with strict spending rules and state aid is still recovering since the recession.
“About 60 percent of school districts have some type of security personnel in place. The most prevalent is school resource officer,” said Belluscio.
School resource officers, or SROs, can be a parent or teacher volunteer but in most cases a member of the local police department is assigned to patrol the school and act as a student advocate. Many have permits to carry firearms.
“It is a recognition of the world in which we live in unfortunately that protecting our children is that important,” said Wantage Township Superintendent Scott Ripley.
In Wantage Township, Sussex County Superintendent Ripley explains his district’s decision to write one of the first ever policies in the state allowing SROs to be employees of the district and carry a weapon. It’s all about being proactive, he says.
“We don’t have violent issues. We don’t have problems with gangs. We don’t have problems that one might assume that this was a reactionary response to what had happened. Nothing has happened at High Point,” he said.
Other towns with low crime are taking similar action. Marlboro Township decided to put an armed guard in each of it’s district schools.
“I like the fact that you now have to show a driver’s license to get in to the school system. I like the fact that the doors are locked. That means strangers can’t just walk in. They have to be buzzed into the school and report right to the office. I like the fact that they’re now taking my kids’ security as their most important thing,” said Vernon resident Margaret Standert.
Superintendent Ripley showed us some of the other measures taken. Card access is a common theme.
A run through of the various fire and emergency drills are now required either monthly or bi-annually. And shades are to be used during active shooter drills.
They are meant to be frightening. Drills are coordinated with local and state law enforcement. This one in West Orange also used diversion tactics.
Like a car bomb while a shooter entered the school building.
“It keeps us in practice, in case the situation ever occurs,” said Roman Ivaldi of Andover.
It’s a far cry from the first drills ever implemented back in the 1950s and 60s.
But in Camden, where safety issues run deep, not everyone is buying into the beefed up security. These kids say it may help catch crime in schools, but not prevent it.
“Because at the end of the day, the people we have here they don’t care,” said Camden student Shakira Roberts.
That’s why the officials here and in similar urban areas say these tools will only work if everyone is involved.
“One would wish it were the world in which I was raised where this was never a concern, a consideration. It no longer is. So while we can lament a world that no longer exists, I think it takes leadership to say I appreciate that, but we’re gonna function the world that is, not the world that was,” Ripley said.
In New Jersey, administrators say parents should rest assured they have a lock on safety without making students feel locked in.