A Florida school shooting that left 17 people dead has reignited safety talks among school leaders and law enforcement here in New Jersey.
The Valentine’s Day killing spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, resulted in Jersey Shore police departments boosting patrols around area schools and reaching out to parents and community members to assure them student safety remained a top priority.
Police departments in Plumsted, Eatontown, Howell and Rumson, among others, said they were increasing patrols at area schools on Thursday.
“There is no cause for concern here,” read an alert read on the Jackson School District website, “but due to the school incident in Florida yesterday, Jackson police wanted to have a comforting and reassuring presence in our schools today. We welcome their visits and thank the department for all they do to support our schools.”
In Tinton Falls, Police Chief John A. Scrivanic assured the community in a Facebook post that the department has measures in place to protect the nearby schools, including robust training and new tactical equipment.
“I have assigned police officers to our schools and have implemented increase patrol measures and proactive techniques to continue to ensure the safety of our children,” he wrote. “I encourage parents that if you see something, say something. Anything that is deemed suspicious, please contact us immediately. This must be a collaborative effort within our community.”
Now is the time for schools and law enforcement to re-evaluate existing safety plans and see what else can be done to protect students and staff, said Joseph Pangaro of Pangaro Training in Brick, a company that helps school officials and business leaders prevent and prepare for violent emergencies.
Most schools in New Jersey already have made massive investments in security through the purchase of surveillance cameras, secure entrance vestibules and other technologies. In addition, state law requires schools hold one fire drill and one school security drill each month.
Proactive schools are also using electronic notification devices that make contacting police and declaring a lockdown a speedy process, said Pangaro, a retired police lieutenant who is now the director of security for the Manalapan-Englishtown School District.
“Time equals life,” said Pangaro. “When it comes to these active shooters … time is what we need to get people on scene that can help save us. If we can slow them (the shooters) down so people can get on scene … we’re going to save lives.”
These efforts aren’t new in Garden State schools. The Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting in 2012 spurred a variety of schools to act and invest in security. But even as far back as 1999 – when the Columbine High School massacre resulted in the murder of 12 students, a teacher and the deaths of both shooters – education experts were talking about protecting students and staff.
“The historical record of these shootings has to inform us,” said Pangaro. “In Florida, we saw something kind of new. … He (alleged shooter and former student Nikolas Cruz) knew the procedures.”
With each new school shooting, administrators must re-evaluate their own safety protocols and technology, he said.
Last summer, the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office unveiled a technology being used to stop school shooters that helped kill Osama bin Laden. The software gives law enforcement maps of schools, room numbers and locations of officers on scene. The program was used last summer in a training exercise at Central Regional High School involving 150 officers. Watch the drill in the video above.
“We’re already way above (other regions) in terms of preparedness, in terms of response,” said Al Della Fave, spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.
Technology and new safety procedures have increased school security in recent years, but Della Fave said the next step is to raise more alarms against possible threats when warning signs appear on social media or conversations.
“Someone has got to pick up the phone and let local authorities know. Don’t hesitate for even a second,” he said.
David Healy, the superintendent of Toms River schools, said the relationships between schools and law enforcement have been key in bolstering students’ safety in recent years.
“Many of our schools, at any time during the day, have at least one, two or sometimes three armed officers. Whether they’re in uniform or not, they carry (weapons),” Healy said. “We’re always on heightened alert. I think the key phrase is ‘universal precautions.’”
The district is also looking into hiring retired police officers to patrol its schools, he said.
Healy said the district will also ask local voters to approve more money for security upgrades in a referendum to be held in the fall.
“We have to prepare for all scenarios,” he said.
The schools and police departments can only do so much to prevent school shootings; responsibility also falls on members of the public to report more warning signs to authorities, school safety experts said.
Cruz allegedly was banned from the Florida campus where the shooting happened after being deemed a threat, but authorities said he infiltrated the campus with a gas mask, smoke grenades and a semi-automatic weapon.
Pangaro said anonymous tip lines can help prevent these mass killings, but threats also have to be investigated not just by schools but law enforcement as well, he said.
“We have to look at potential violence and look at it very closely,” he said. “We really need to take this more seriously.”