Assembly Panel Advances Assembly Democratic Legislative Package to Enhance Security at Schools

An Assembly committee approved a three-bill legislative package to help make New Jersey’s schools safer for students. The bill was sponsored by Assembly Democrats John S. Wisniewski, Vincent Prieto, Ralph Caputo, Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr., Ruben J. Ramos, Jr., L. Grace Spencer, Cleopatra G. Tucker, Annette Quijano and Valerie Vainieri Huttle.

The first bill would ensure that student safety and the integrity of the voting process are not compromised when a public school doubles as a polling place on Election Day.

“As Newtown showed us, we cannot be too careful about the access we give strangers to our schools and our children,” said Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), who sponsored the bill. “This bill requires school districts to put in place safety measures to ensure that our students are not put at risk. We want people to exercise their right to vote, but we also want to keep our kids safe.”

The bill gives the board of education of a school district the option to either hold or cancel classes at a school that is being used as a polling place on Election Day. If the board chooses to hold class, the bill requires the board to establish and implement a written security plan, based on guidelines established by the state Attorney General, to ensure the safety of students and the proper functioning and integrity of the voting process during the election.

In addition, the bill dictates that a public school cannot be used as a polling place on a day that classes are in session, unless voting takes place in a room that is directly accessible from the outside, or that is secured by a door or other barrier from the rest of the building, or there is a uniformed law enforcement officer present, and voters are not permitted to pass without supervision through the interior of the building when entering or leaving that room.

Any expenses incurred by the district in order to carry out the bill’s provisions would be reimbursed by the state upon application to the Attorney General. The reimbursements would be covered from funds appropriated to the state Department of Treasury from the general fund.

The bill would take effect immediately, but would only apply to elections taking place more than four months after the effective date to avoid disrupting already-scheduled elections.

The second bill, sponsored by Wisniewski and Prieto, would require a school district to take all necessary steps to ensure adequate security for the protection of students when a school is used as a polling place. The bill would also allow the district to deduct any expenses incurred in providing additional security from the sum charged by the county board of elections for the costs of operating a school election. Under current law, school districts must reimburse the county board of elections for costs associated with the operation of a school election.

“When you have that many people coming in and out of a school, you have to be extra vigilant. We have seen the devastation that can be caused when the wrong person gets access to our schools. If any situation calls for additional security, this does,” said Wisniewski.

“Using a school as a polling place is convenient for voters, but can also be problematic since you’re essentially opening the school to strangers. We cannot be too careful when it comes to protecting our children, especially in light of recent events,” said Prieto (D- Bergen/Hudson).

The third bill, sponsored by Caputo, Diegnan, Ramos, Spencer, Tucker, Quijano and Vainieri Huttle, would require public elementary and secondary schools in the state be equipped with a panic alarm and red emergency light for use in a school security emergency.

“Time is of the essence when it comes to school security emergencies,” said Caputo (D-Essex). “Directly linking a panic alarm to law enforcement authorities to enable them to respond quicker is common sense. It is commonplace technology and something that should be done to better protect our children.”

The bill (A-3691) defines a panic alarm as a silent security system signal that can be manually activated to signal a life-threatening or emergency situation that requires a response from law enforcement. The alarm would not be audible inside the school facility, and would be in addition to – not replace – existing security systems. The bill (A-3691) also requires that all public and secondary schools be equipped with a red emergency light that is affixed to the exterior of the school building in a highly visible location above or near the front entrance. The light would be linked to the school’s panic alarm so that it turns on when the alarm is activated.

“The threat of violence in our schools is all too real. What happened in Newtown can happen anywhere so we must be proactive,” said Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chair of the Assembly Education Committee. “This is another way to protect students and staff if tragedy ever strikes.”

“We want to give our schools the best chance to defuse situations that threaten the safety of our students and teachers. Installing these panic alarms is one way to do it,” said Ramos (D-Hudson). “The quicker law enforcement respond to an emergency, the better the outcome.”

“We have a responsibility to keep our children safe. These panic alarms would silently alert law enforcement in the case of an emergency, which can help avoid making a bad situation worse and get the needed emergency services to the site quicker,” said Spencer (D-Essex).

“We must consider all the tools at our disposal to help protect students in the case of an emergency without putting them in greater danger,” said Tucker (D-Essex). “These panic alarms are another way to reach law enforcement without alerting the intruder or perpetrator.”

“Students and teachers should feel safe in school. Knowing that they have a direct link to law enforcement at their disposal through the panic alarm can help ease any fears or anxiety, and more importantly, help thwart any safety threats that may arise,” said Quijano (D-Union).

“Newtown reminded us that our schools are not immune to violence. The time that it takes local law enforcement to respond to an emergency can make all the difference. If a panic alarm can help save just one life, it is worth pursuing,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen).

All three bills were released by the Assembly Education Committee. [TLS]

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