A security consulting firm, Berkeley Peterson, was hired to conduct a survey to see what the district could do to improve upon security. However, it was determined that many improvements the firm recommended were too costly to implement.
In speaking with North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, who also serves as a state senator and the assistant superintendent of the North Bergen Board of Education, Congressman Steve Rothman found out the town had a substantial need to improve the security in all of its schools.
"One of the great things about Nick Sacco is that he's a hands-on activist," Rothman said last week. "He said that North Bergen had a need for school security, in terms of cameras, better locks for the doors, and walk-through security devices. I knew that I was getting letters from students who said that they were afraid to go to school."
Rothman said he co-sponsored a bill, the "Secure Our Schools Act," that would use federal funds to help make schools safer.
Last Friday, Rothman appeared at North Bergen High School and presented school officials with a check for $325,000 that will go toward the purchase of necessary security devices.
The contribution to the town was part of the $615,000, secured by Rothman's legislation, to be distributed among six needy school districts. The U.S. Department of Justice is the agency dispersing the funds.
North Bergen received the largest amount, with Union City receiving $125,000. Others receiving funds included Asbury Park ($50,000), Irvington ($50,000), Orange ($35,000), and Wildwood ($30,000).
The "Secure Our Schools Act" is a voluntary, matching program that calls for the federal government to pay for 50 percent of the security measures at the schools, with the state or local governments covering the remainder of the cost. However, there is a chance that some grant recipients may receive an exemption from the federal government for participating in the matching portion of the program.
"These first-ever federal grants from the 'Secure Our Schools Act' may well prevent the tragedy of school violence from befalling the children at these at-risk New Jersey schools," Rothman said. "With new security measures in place as a result of these funds, students will be able to concentrate more freely on their studies without having to look over their shoulders in fear of danger, and parents will be able to live more comfortably knowing that their children are safe in school."
Rothman co-authored the bill with Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), working across party lines, and got it passed through Congress. It was signed into law in 2001, targeting more than $5 million for the program nationwide. The moneys were allocated to local schools recently.
According to Rothman, North Bergen and Union City were targeted as initial recipients because both districts realized the need for increased security and contacted him for help.
"There is a track record for identifying the need and it's looked favorably upon," Rothman said.
"We needed help, and our recent incidents were reminders that we had to push forward," North Bergen Superintendent of Schools Peter Fischbach said. "We had a plan and were ready to go with it, but we needed financial assistance." Fischbach said the funding will go toward purchasing new metal detectors, surveillance cameras, as well as locks and improved lighting. An improved identification system, with possibly a better ID badge program, will also be considered.
"We have always taken the policy of being very pro-active in terms of our security," Fischbach said. "We're always taking preventative safety measures."
Part of the funding will also go to better train present staff as security officers, Fischbach said.
"It's not only for North Bergen High School, but for our elementary schools as well," Fischbach said. "We want to make sure that we have the safest community possible."
Sacco said the town's plan turned out to be beneficial.
"We tried to decide what the best way to attack this issue was and didn't want to do it piecemeal," Sacco said. "The experts all told us what we needed and now we were able to secure the funding, thanks to the efforts of Congressman Rothman."
Rothman said that the grants to North Bergen and Union City were just the beginning. He hopes to expand the federal "Secure Our Schools" program to include $30 million in 2003.
"These funds represent the first phase in what will be an ongoing commitment to combating school violence, here in New Jersey and throughout the country," Rothman said. "It is essential that we provide our schools with whatever tools they deem necessary to protect students, teachers, and faculty members from any kind of violence."