Packing heat

School district to arm some security guards
"We have to have some firepower in case something does happen," said Interim Superintendent Dr. Michael A. Wanko.
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"We have to have some firepower in case something does happen," said Interim Superintendent Dr. Michael A. Wanko.

Bayonne schools were panicked last year when a social media user threatened a school shooting at “BHS,” which was later discovered to have been an abbreviation for another school district.

As a result of threats like that, as well as actual shootings, schools across the country are considering arming security guards, and even teachers.

The Bayonne Board of Education took that precaution at a September 27 meeting. Now, some security guards will be armed with a gun, but not all.

“This is nothing really new, but it’s new to Bayonne,” said Interim Superintendent Dr. Michael A. Wanko, who noted that other schools in the region and across the country have armed security guards. “Unfortunately, we’re now at a point where we’re not a hard target, but we’re doing a lot of things behind the scenes that I can’t go into detail on to make us less of a soft target, so people don’t come here [to commit violence.]”

A soft target is an entity that’s vulnerable to attack. A hard target is an entity that, due to protective measures, minimizes risks.

Wanko’s goal for the new policy is to “make students feel more comfortable, parents more comfortable, and staff more comfortable.”

More firepower, more funds

While at the school, security guards will not be allowed to load their weapons while on shift, except in the case of a large event taking place on school grounds. Wanko said this procedure is to avoid a gun discharging while being loaded.

The number of security guards has been increased from nine last year to 12 this year, and the amount of security aid from the state has been raised from $700,000 to $3 million, according to Wanko. Security guards hired at the school all had careers in law enforcement, according to Wanko.

During their careers, none of them had to discharge their weapons, which shows they can de-escalate a situation,” Wanko said. “On the other hand, we have to have some firepower in case something does happen.”

Alan D’Angelo, President of the teachers’ union, the Bayonne Teachers Association, was critical of the idea that teachers will not know which security guards will be armed.

“I think you should re-examine that,” D’Angelo said, “because if someone is going to pull a gun, and you don’t know if he’s security or someone entering the facility, teachers should know who that is.”

Security guards wear a black security shirt with a patch that will identify them to teachers and students, Wanko explained, easing some of D’Angelo’s concerns.

“We’re following the model that has been used in Israel,” Wanko said. “There has never been a school shooting in Israel.”

He said that the new policy will expand “coverage” because a security guard—armed or not—will carry the same threat to a potential shooter because that person will not know whether the guard is armed.

“I wanted to thank the whole security team for accepting this responsibility,” said BBOED Trustee Christopher Munoz after the board voted unanimously for the resolution. “I know you’ve gone through man-hours of training to get to this moment.”

 

“We want to be a welcoming environment, but we also need to be a safe and secure environment.” – Dr. Michael A. Wanko

 

Creating a culture of support

Arming some security guards is part of a “two-pronged approach,” according to Wanko.

“This is the hardware, which is the easy part,” Wanko said. “All you’re doing is buying things to make the school safer. Changing the culture is the hard part, where we have to provide enough positive activities for our students, where they feel comfortable coming to a teacher or security personnel, if they hear something or they feel different than they usually do.”

The NJ School Boards Association released a report in 2014 that identified common traits and indicators for those who perpetrate school shootings. The report says that shooters are “brittle people” who often feel persecuted, alienated, and are victims of neglect and abuse. They also often lack a support network of friends and family.

Further data from the Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations, which collects survey data from parents, teachers, and students across the country over the past 30 years, shows a mistrust between students and their schools. According to the database, 56 percent of students do not feel like they have a say in decision making at school, and 54 percent feel as though their teachers do not care if they are absent.

School environments that foster support systems and ensure students do not feel victimized, persecuted, or alienated make for safer schools. Wanko said the Bayonne school district addresses these issues by making available to students a wide range of clubs, activities, and sports teams, and by holding “climate committees” at every school that take the cultural “temperature” of each student body to best determine what activities students would be interested in.

“We want to be a welcoming environment, but we also need to be a safe and secure environment,” Wanko said. “There is a very delicate balance there.”

Rory Pasquariello may be reached at roryp@hudsonreporter.com.

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