WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — Conversations about school security have resurfaced following the recent Santa Fe, Texas, school shooting that killed 10 and injured 10 more.
Much of the talk has focused on hiring weapon-wielding guards to protect the students from active shooters. In New Jersey, the talk has turned to the design of the school buildings and if something can be done to make them safer.
In a letter to the school community, Rockaway Township Superintendent Greg McGann talked of how recent tragedies are a reminder to school officials of "how precious this life is" and to continue to look for ways to improve security.
Fortifying entrances is a good place to start, say security experts. A sequence of locked doors with an intercom system and security cameras is top priority for schools looking to tighten security.
The front entrance
Between 1999 and 2015, the percentage of students who said their school's entrance was locked during the school day rose from 38 to 78, according to statistics from the national Bureau of Justice Statistics.
"Every door has a lock on it already. It doesn’t even cost a penny and it is the first thing to do to fortify your building," said Christopher Wagner, Denville police chief.
Beyond simply locking doors, school leaders in Rockaway and West Milford, N.J., have recently announced plans to take a closer look at renovating main entryways to manage and nullify threats.
Detective Sgt. Dave Crouthamel of the Kinnelon Police Department said more and more schools are seeking to funnel visitors through a single entrance into a lobby flanked by locking doors.
As seen at West Milford High School, the “mantrap” design allows a guard, staff member, or digital driver’s license scanner to scrutinize visitors in a confined area prior to entry.
"A lot of schools are going to mantraps because it does trap the person in there and it doesn’t give them entrance into the school until they get vetted," Crouthamel said.
Alex Anemone, the West Milford superintendent, said district officials will be examining ways to develop mantraps in other schools. Depositories for late arriving lunch boxes will also be positioned outside schools to further reduce access to anyone but staff and students, he said.
This year, West Milford High School introduced door-unlocking scanners for student identification swipe cards to provide an additional layer of security. The cards are being used by students and staff to not only enter the school through the mantrap, but gain access to bathrooms, libraries, and certain classrooms, said Paul Gorski, school principal.
If they get in
With the majority of school shooters being current or former students, there are concerns that swipe tags and colored lanyards may be easy to copy, steal, or borrow. Intimate knowledge of a campus is also a common trait for school shooters, meaning not every dangerous situation can be thwarted at the front door.
Wagner said teachers should be locking their classroom doors whenever class is in session.
"Locking them all day long prevents an intruder from getting into a specific classroom," Wagner said.
Of more than 83,000 schools surveyed in 2015 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 94 percent reported controlling access to the school through locked doors or other means when class is in session. Only 66 percent reported the ability to lock classrooms from the inside, however.
To prevent access into classrooms, some newer technologies boast the ability to lock doors remotely or school-wide in an emergency situation. Some more simplistic devises have also become popular among schools in order to barricade doors against physical force, keys, and swipe cards when all else fails.
One device invented by a Wisconsin high school student barricades a door even if the lock has been shot out. Justin Rivard’s first customer for the “JustinKase,” a contraption of steel plates and rods he fashioned in shop class, was his school district.
Along with films for windows to prevent them from breaking, the devices could help create classroom bunkers and prevent students and staff from flooding wide-open corridors.
Drills and codes
When it comes to the interior layout of schools, Ringwood Police Chief Joseph Walker said fire codes' emphasis on easing exit in an emergency can make it easier for a shooting to become deadly.
“School buildings aren’t conducive for security,” Walker said. “They always design them around fire codes.”
Participants at annual National Fire Protection Association workshops have promoted ways to integrate security into fire prevention by updating and retrofitting required fire doors in recent years, records show. Better integrating involving law enforcement in fire drills is also a recurring topic.
Martin McParland, the Rockaway police chief, said improvements in fire safety infrastructure, planning, and drilling has all but eliminated fire concerns. Now society needs to approach security the same way, McParland said.
"Compare where we are now, as far as shooter drills, to where the country was with fire drills back in the 1960s," McParland said. "We have to get the buy-in from the administration, parents and teachers. Hopefully, we can also achieve that statistic — being 0 — not losing any kids to shooters in schools."
The percentage of schools with a school shooting emergency plan increased from 79 percent in 2003 to 92 percent in 2015, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Rughly 95 percent of schools had student lockdown drills, 92 percent had evacuation drills, and 76 percent had shelter-in-place drills.
Who gets in?
From 2009-10 to 2015-16, there were 31 incidents in New Jersey involving students with firearms on campus, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In 2013, 2.7 percent of New Jersey students in grades 9-12 reported carrying a weapon to school at least once in the 30 days prior to the survey, center records show.
To ward off aggressors, a New Jersey School Security Task Force report released in 2015 recommended physical barriers or a security presence that can detect a threat and delay or deny unwanted access.
Among its other recommendations were biometric scanners at main entrances, guard shacks at the edge of campuses, and surveillance cameras — primarily as a deterrent. From 2001 to 2015, the percentage of students who reported the use of security cameras at their schools increased from 39 to 83 percent.
Once an active threat infiltrates a school, many districts are turning to keyless entry using keypads to allow first aid, fire, and law enforcement officials access, Crouthamel said.
One keypad is fine for your home, but inadequate for a school where multiple access is needed for emergency workers and select school personnel during a lockdown situation, he said.
"They would need access all around,” he said.
While emergency response units are seeking access to clear a campus, Walker said parents will inevitably respond by mobbing the scene. A bombardment of drivers can create a larger danger, he added.
To this end, Crouthamel said staging areas are needed where police can direct the flow of traffic. A space will also be needed for incident command and another for a debriefing area where those involved can go for information, he said.
"In school security, it may seem overwhelming when you are thinking about where to start," said Wagner. "Make a prioritize list and go after the low hanging fruit first."
Follow David M Zimmer and Gene Myers on Twitter @dzimmernews and @myersgene