By Julie Ritzer Ross
Shortly after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida this past February—an incident that left 17 students and staff members dead and another 17 injured—Steven Forte, superintendent of the Denville Township School District, and Christopher Wagner, chief of the Denville Township Police Department, received an unusual request. Several members of the New Jersey State Assembly and Senate had attended a dinner held by the Morris County School Boards Association, where the duo had explained how the Denville Township School District and Denville Township Police Department work together to ensure the safety and security of Denville’s schools at a time when school shootings seem to have become a regular occurrence. Impressed by the presentation, Assemblywoman Mila Jassey invited Forte and Wagner to address the Joint Senate and Assembly Education Committee about the same topic.
Both men accepted the invitation and covered their approach to school security in an article that appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of School Leader, a bi-monthly publication of the New Jersey School Boards Association. But that wasn’t the end of it—it was the beginning, because Forte and Wagner have since fielded multiple requests to tell their story and have embarked on a “speaking tour,” delivering their presentation at meetings of the Morris County League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Chief of Police Association, as well as at the recent New Jersey School Board Association Conference and New Jersey League of Municipalities Conference.
“We’ll go wherever we can to convey our message, which is that a team approach to school security, involving both the police department and the schools, is critical today,” Forte says. “Children cannot learn, and teachers cannot teach effectively, if they don’t feel safe. It’s my job as an educator to ensure that they do, and the police department plays a role.”
The presentation delivered by Forte and Wagner centers on what they call the “school safety and security wheel,” which has eight spokes. Each spoke has different components designed, the police chief and educator say, to “gain trust and cooperation in Denville,” with the ultimate goal of taking school safety and security to the highest level. These components range from safety and security projects, initiatives, and measures to the identification of key stakeholders in ensuring security at all schools in the district.
The first “spoke” of the wheel features elements that identify safety and security as the most important priority in the Denville school community, based on the belief that all students must feel and be safe in order to learn at an optimal level. To best establish this sense, Forte and Wagner explain, efforts are made to avoid turning Denville’s schools into “correctional facilities” where students are not free to have fun or walk through the hallways. Instead, all police and district staff work in tandem to keep schools as safe as possible, without preventing students from learning or socializing with each other. For example, an investment was made in hiring a Class III Special Officer to patrol Denville school hallways. The officer, who splits his time among Denville’s schools and is on the Denville Police Department payroll, is a police officer who retired in good standing, wears a police uniform, carries a gun, and has full police powers. Former Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill that created the position into law in late 2016. Forte and Wagner are hoping to be able to hire two more Class III Special Officers for the 2019-2020 school year.
Additionally, “security vestibules” are now being installed in each of Denville’s five schools to further prevent intruders from freely roaming the corridors. Individuals arriving at the schools must present a state-issued identification card for scanning at a special kiosk. The kiosk runs special software that conducts a background check on each visitor against national criminal and sex offender databases; only after being cleared and receiving a pass can any visitor move beyond the unit and into the building.
A positive, trust-based relationship between the local police department and the schools forms the second “spoke.” Wagner and Forte say much of this trust is fostered by checking their egos “at the door” and acknowledging that for both of them, work on security never stops; issues must be discussed a few times each week, if not daily. However, in explaining this spoke to audiences, they always note that a school district’s superintendent and police chief do not necessarily need to be the ones who work together to foster a safe school environment. “As long as you have people from both sides, and they can collaborate effectively, things work fine,” Wagner says. “But the key is consistency. Only consistent police involvement in the schools leads to a strong, trusting relationship.”
The third “spoke,” meanwhile, is careful communication between parents, staff, students, and stakeholders—letting them know that their safety and security is of utmost importance to the school district and the police alike, without bombarding them with specifics. For example, Wagner and Forte share their general methodology for lockdown procedures with all members of the school community, as well as let members of the school community in on various options for reacting to an active breach of security (run, hide, or fight). They also insist that all communication with the school community be jointly handled by the police department and the school district—so everyone knows the schools and police are working as a team on the security plan.
Spoke four centers on student and staff behavior, which Forte and Wagner say are critical to the success of Denville’s school safety program as well as to the success of similar programs at other schools. Students and staff are told that they should feel free to provide information about their safety, including reports of instances when they believe safety has been compromised. Practices like propping open school entry doors or leaving classroom doors unlocked during the day when students are inside are discouraged and, according to Forte, rarely noticed in any of Denville’s schools.
Facilities and technology make up spoke number five. “When we started taking a good look at our security measures a few years ago, the number of items we needed to address and the cost of doing that was overwhelming,” Wagner recalls. He and Forte decided to identify some “low-hanging fruit” that would be the easiest and least expensive to implement, while simultaneously affording a high level of security. In Denville, one low-hanging fruit was door locks, which were already in place on every door. So Forte and Wagner initially made one change when they first started working together—instituting a requirement that all doors in every school be locked at all times when students and staff are present. Other technologies, including security cameras, vestibules, and communications devices and software, have since been added. All foster security by allowing the proper parties to access live updates on student and staff locations, along with safety status.
The fifth spoke is preparedness. In Denville, Forte explains, staff professional development events that focus on safety and security are held each year in cooperation with the police department, mental health professionals, and other safety experts. According to Forte, educating staff about safety measures being implemented increases the potential for “buy-in” and, in turn, the success of safety and security initiatives.
Members of the police department attend every emergency drill, because drilling and practicing tactics with the police makes them more impactful. Additionally, Forte and Wagner say, police presence during emergency drills goes beyond ensuring that the district continues to follow best school safety and security practices. It increases police officers’ familiarity with school facilities.
Staff and students are also given options for emergencies rather than instructed to lock down in a classroom when emergencies arise. These include Run-Hide-Fight, a protocol for action when an active shooter is present, and ALICE (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate), an active civilian shooter response protocol. Both Forte and Wagner have undergone ALICE active civilian shooter response training.
In Denville, students are also briefed on situational awareness and other behaviors Forte and Wagner say are helpful in boosting security levels. Among examples are informing a staff member when they feel uncomfortable or see something out of the ordinary. Should an incident occur, whether in Denville or elsewhere, Forte and Wagner come together to evaluate and revise procedures and drills.
Because school culture and climate are key elements of any school district’s safety and security protocols, the sixth spoke centers on behavioral health. The need to treat others with kindness is emphasized in a mission to create a safe, secure, and welcoming school climate. By verbal reinforcement from the district and police sides alike, students and staff are empowered to immediately report unusual behaviors and any information they may hear about plans for a violent event, based on the principle that the best chance to stop school violence is prevention.
Similarly, the district takes action in rare occasions when a student is in crisis and at risk of harming himself or herself and/or others. A referral for a psychiatric screening is made, and individualized plans for supporting the student when he or she returns to school are created. The police remain involved in any incident where weapons or violence are suspected.
The eighth and final spoke is security personnel. The Class III Special Police Officer was added when the district and the police department determined that other plans, professional development initiatives, cultural changes, and the like did not make up a comprehensive safety and security model. However, stakeholders were consulted on the issue before a final decision about this hire was made. Only one officer was hired at the outset in order to let the school community grow gradually accustomed to the idea of having an armed officer in the schools, as well as to more easily introduce the cost of extra security personnel into the budget.
Forte and Wagner believe the plan is working for the Denville Township School District. They are looking to bring the tour to other districts in New Jersey and other states. At the time of their interview with Denville Life in early December, they were awaiting word about making a presentation in Texas this coming summer.
“Again, school safety and security benefit from a tight partnership between school districts and police,” Wagner concludes. “We just can’t emphasize that enough. That’s what the tour is all about.”