Mayor Richard Turner announced this week that two retired police officers carrying concealed weapons have been placed in the Daniel Webster School and Theodore Roosevelt School, and that a uniformed police officer will be stationed outside the main entrance to Weehawken High School during the morning, lunch and dismissal hours, though that officer will not be stationed inside.
The hiring of the officers is the main component of a set of revised security guidelines agreed upon by the township and parent organizations in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. school massacre in late December, said Turner.
“We’re fairly sure that with these new guidelines, everything that can be done is being done,” said Turner.
The two retired officers, whose identities township officials will keep anonymous, will dress in plain clothes and be equipped with police radios. The decision to place the officers in the schools was voted upon unanimously by the Board of Education, who felt that it would be best to increase security in a quiet and uncomplicated manner.
“With these new guidelines, everything that can be done is being done.” – Mayor Richard Turner
Detective Thomas White, who serves as the township’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator and works with the board on school security, said that the retired officers would give the police department a huge advantage in the event of an active shooter emergency.
“They are familiar with our procedures,” he said. “And because they have police radios, we can respond quickly. The time it takes someone to get to a phone and call 9-1-1, plus the time the dispatcher needs to alert us, accounts for precious seconds.”
Township officials acknowledged that a few parents were concerned that arming the officers was too extreme a step, but said that otherwise support for the measure was overwhelming.
“It’s a very logical, natural debate, and concerns are completely justified,” said Turner.
Still, stationing unarmed security in the schools would defeat the purpose, said Director of Public Safety Jeff Welz.
“We felt that putting an officer in the schools without a weapon puts him at a disadvantage,” he said.
In the interest of timeliness, the Township Council voted at a recent public meeting to fund the retired officer’s salaries due to limitations in the Board of Education budget.
“We didn’t want to procrastinate with this,” said Barsa. “We don’t have a lot of extra cash, so we’re thankful that the township was willing to pick up the cost.”
The guidelines, which were presented to the township’s various parent organizations on Jan. 15, take steps to secure school grounds as well as control the flow of people in and out of school buildings.
School officials have established one main entrance to each building and put up signage identifying it as such.
“This entrance is where our officer will be located at the high school, and where the retired officers will be located at Webster and Roosevelt,” said White. “It’s vitally important that we control the flow in and out of these buildings.”
Notices have been placed on secondary entrances at some schools notifying visitors that if they do not enter through the established main entrance or else they could be charged with trespassing.
Additionally, the Board of Education will produce identification cards for all staff, including substitute teachers. The cards will be worn at all times and inspected upon entering any of the township’s schools.
“Essentially the ID’s will make it easy for our security personnel to establish who is supposed to be in the building and who isn’t,” said White.
Along with the ID’s, the schools have put into effect a stringent visitor escort system. All visitors will be required to sign in and leave a government-issued ID at the school’s front desk in return for a hall pass. Furthermore, the office or classroom which the visitor has listed as their destination will be notified and instructed to call the front desk should the visitor not arrive.
Finally, students at all the schools have been instructed not to open doors for anyone and to only use the established main entrance.
Other measures that will be considered long-term include installing cameras at all interior and exterior entrances and magnetic locks on doors.
“We’re never fully accomplished with security,” said Superintendent of Schools Kevin McClellan. “It’s an evolving process that we will continue to review and look at each year.”
Turner, Barsa and Welz recently observed a lockdown drill at Roosevelt School and said that the students performed “tremendously.”
“It’s really quite amazing that these kids know exactly what to do and do it so flawlessly,” said Turner. “I remember when we did air raid drills in school, and we weren’t nearly as good at it.”
The Board of Education mandates that each school practice one evacuation and one lockdown drill per month, in addition to a fire drill.
McClellan said that sometimes they deliberately insert flaws into the drills, such as instructing one teacher to intentionally not evacuate her students, so that officials can assess their response to unforeseen circumstances.
“In nearly every case we’ve been satisfied with the school’s performance,” he said.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org