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Preparing Today for Safety Tomorrow

By Becky Lewis
September  2013

The school’s schedule looks like one for a pretty run-of-the-mill Wednesday: No assemblies or pep rallies, soccer games after classes (boys at home, girls away), stuffed shells for lunch.

The visitors walking toward the office are about to change all that. They’ve come from the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning, and in a very short time, students and staff will be called on to run an unscheduled active shooter drill.

One of several components of a 2012 state initiative titled “Safe Schools for a Better Tomorrow (SSBT),” New Jersey’s requirement for schools to participate in unannounced security drills began in January 2013. Anthony Bland, the State Coordinator and head of the Office, says that whereas many states don’t require school safety drills at all, New Jersey mandates active shooter, bomb threat, non-fire evacuation and lockdown school security drills, and provides checklists and guidance on how to set up and execute them.

“Via the M.O.S.S. process, my staff also schedules visits to designated M.O.S.S. school districts to observe drills from an outsider’s perspective, one drill each at elementary, middle school and secondary school levels,” Bland says. “We meet with stakeholders and provide written feedback, diagnosing and prescribing just like a doctor.”

Bland and his staff also provide much more to schools than just oversight to drills. The New Jersey SSBT Initiative provides direct technical assistance to schools, coordinates with local law enforcement and facilitates increased communication between school administrators and the public safety community: “We want people to know that in New Jersey we are progressive and we are doing good things.”

The “good things” that make up the SSBT Initiative include, in addition to the Statewide School Security Drill Audit, Making Our Schools Safe (M.O.S.S.) Districts (which provide technical assistance), Securing Our Schools (law enforcement training), half-day school security conferences in each county, Surf’s Up (Internet Safety training), symposia for nonpublic schools,
ways to improve communication and surveillance infrastructure, and a upcoming model template for the state’s required district-wide safety and security plan.

Bland says his office supports the initiative by providing statewide, regional and local training, and offering checklists and other supporting materials. The strength of New Jersey’s efforts has impressed many, including several state representatives from Pennsylvania who have looked at possibly modeling programs on their neighbor’s.

“Our state has been very aggressive in making sure that our school districts have strong guidance, and we have the potential to provide training and technical assistance to other states across the nation related to school security drills, best practices and planning,” Bland says, adding it has taken New Jersey a number of years to develop and fine-tune its programs. Although the SSBT Initiative launched in early 2012, New Jersey intensified its focus on school security following the West Nickel Mines/Amish Schoolhouse shooting in 2006.

That incident, Bland says, became the impetus for convening a K-12 School Security Task Force that includes county and state officials, school administrators, school resource officers and police chiefs, and community stakeholders in developing a safe culture, all-hazards approach to address events varying from earthquakes and hurricanes to active shooter threats.

Bland says that New Jersey schools and communities have responded in a very positive way to the state’s initiatives and requirements, taking pride in the knowledge they have practiced and they are prepared, but he adds: “There’s no magic that will eliminate all senseless acts of violence. People don’t like to hear that, but it’s true. We have great plans and great guidance, but there’s no way to stop everything.

“If another state needs help with similar initiatives, we are here to help. We travel along this road together and we are a nation of one.”

You can visit the following links to learn more:

 Or contact Anthony Bland at (609) 584-4297 or (609) 633-6681 or email [email protected].