Over the last year, school district administrators and staff have increasingly turned to the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning (OSPEP) as they seek to improve the safety and security of their schools through planning, drilling, and instruction. Reports of violence directed toward schools around the country have contributed to a rise in requests of assistance to the OSPEP staff from public, non-public, and charter schools across the state.

OSPEP is currently staffed by six security regional planners acting under the guidance of director Ben Castillo. OSPEP collaborates with the N.J. Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, U.S. Department of Education, New Jersey State Police, FEMA, N.J. Association of School Resource Officers and all the county prosecutor’s offices in an effort to spread the word about school security preparedness and emergency planning.

Unannounced Active Shooter Drills (UADs) are one major focus of OSPEP. Over the past 18 months, members from the office have observed nearly 475 schools across the state conducting their active shooter drills. The observations began as part of the governor’s Safe Schools Initiative after the passage of N.J.S.A. 18A:41-1, often referred to as the “Drill Law.” Visits are pre-arranged with the superintendents of the school districts that are selected by OSPEP, but they are a surprise to the individual school. The collaborative effort includes district and school administrators, school staff, OSPEP, New Jersey State Police, representatives from the respective county prosecutor’s office, and local law enforcement. After observing a school’s active shooter drill, feedback is provided and best practices are shared, which may be implemented in order to address challenges identified during drilling. The experience has generated a great deal of positive feedback from school administrators and staff, and the observations by OSPEP typically lead to requests for additional assistance in other areas such as professional development, parent night presentations and school safety and security plan reviews.

In addition to the ongoing drilling and exercising of school plans, OSPEP has conducted six regional training sessions over the past four months, designed to assist school districts with the development, evaluation, and refinement of their School Safety and Security Plans as mandated by N.J.A.C. 6A:16-5.1. More recently, OSPEP collaborated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide Monmouth County schools with a day of “Continuity of Operations Planning” training. The training included a tabletop exercise, designed around a scenario involving a major weather event similar to Hurricane Sandy, which challenged attendees to devise plans required to address a similar disaster. Plans are underway to expand and provide this training to schools from other counties.

In July 2015, OSPEP prepared and delivered a Summer School Safety Symposium attended by school administrators and staff, security professionals, and law enforcement officers, which included breakout sessions on a wide variety of topics and included presenters from the N.J. State Police, the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, the Holmdel and Hazlet Police Departments, and the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning. The enthusiasm and interest surrounding this symposium established the need for three additional symposiums that have since been provided across the state. More are planned in the near future.

OSPEP also offers professional development on school safety and security training for teachers and staff as requested by school districts. OSPEP regional planners are receiving an increasing number of requests for these sessions as a result of conducting unannounced active shooter drill observations. Because staff such as teachers, nurses, aides, and others are asked to participate in the UAD process, they often recognize a need for additional training. This greater awareness and appreciation of school security has resulted in an increase in requests of our office to provide professional development sessions.

OSPEP has also seen a rise in requests for informational sessions presented to parents. Educating parents to participate in a school’s security efforts and policies engenders the support of parents, and is an important factor in keeping their children safe.

Due to the NJDOE’s concerted endeavors in forging partnerships between educators and colleagues at the local, state, and federal levels, important strides are being made to enhance the safety of our students, teachers, and all who visit our schools. Through these continued efforts, the important message of school security is reaching thousands of educational staff, security professionals, and members of the emergency services.

The services provided by OSPEP are free to school districts who request the assistance. For additional information, visit the website. The website provides guidance and policy documentation as well as best practices, checklists, reports and training opportunities. The Technical Assistance tab illustrates ways in which the OSPEP can facilitate increasing school safety, security, and preparedness at your school.

If you feel you have a need for, or could benefit from the assistance of the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning, complete the Technical Assistance Form to request any of the services described here, or to request a custom presentation to meet the needs of your school population.

As they are developed, additional symposiums, planning sessions, tabletop exercises and training opportunities will be available on the NJDOE calendar of events. Watch for them by searching for the word “security” in the upper right search box on the website. Information on upcoming events may also be available via the various offices of county superintendents.

Jeff Gale is a school security planner with the State Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning.