Rutgers psychologist speaks at NJ forum on school safety

EWING, N.J. - A psychologist told anxious New Jersey school officials Friday that after the Newtown, Conn., massacre, assessing a school's social climate and its potential for violence is every bit as important as assessing its academic performance.

"People who have a sense of dignity do not perpetrate harm on each other," said Maurice Elias, a Rutgers University psychology professor and an expert on social and emotional learning. He was the keynote speaker at a statewide forum on the campus of the College of New Jersey.

The New Jersey School Boards Association convened the "Safe and Secure Schools: Perspectives After Newtown" conference as last month's mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. That tragedy, which claimed the lives of 20 first graders and six teachers and administrators, continues to drive a national debate on how best to keep children safe.

On Thursday, Gov. Christie established a task force led by two former state attorneys general that has 60 days to come up with "violence control" measures. And on Wednesday, President Obama flanked himself with four schoolchildren as he signed a series of executive orders and proposed legislation restricting assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as ways to prevent another Newtown-style massacre.

The National Rifle Association, which opposes nearly all of the president's initiatives, has said the best way to prevent massacres is to place armed guards in every school. This month, school superintendents in Totowa, Passaic County, and Marlboro Township, Monmouth County, reported that they had put armed officers in elementary schools. Other districts, including Gloucester Township in Camden County, are considering similar plans.

But Elias, who led a Developing Safe and Civil Schools initiative at Rutgers, was dubious about armed guards. Children don't necessarily want to see police in schools, he told the audience. They would rather be surrounded by caring educators who make them valued and safe, he said.

"The climate of a school is an essential part of the overall package of creating safe schools," he said.

Studies show that schools that emphasize social, emotional, and character development have fewer problems with violence and drugs, Elias said. If a community decides it wants police patrolling its schools, how their presence is explained to students makes a difference.

"If there's a sense of reassurance, that this is not necessary - even though you may think it is - kids need to believe that and then ignore that person," he said.

Others at the forum spoke in favor of using law enforcement to protect children from armed intruders. Raymond J. Hayducka, South Brunswick police chief and president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, said that after the 1999 Columbine, Colo., shooting, which left 14 dead, he installed an officer in every school in his town. But federal money for school safety dried up, so now officers patrol schools during their shifts, even in the middle of the night. If a school is open, they stop inside. Moreover, every officer tours one school a month to learn the layout in case of an emergency.

"In reality, there's more you can do," but funds aren't available, Hayducka said.

Funding was a concern of some questioners, one of whom asked Anthony Bland, state coordinator for the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning in the state Department of Education, whether Christie would consider lifting the 2 percent cap on property tax increases so school boards could pay for some of these additional security measures.

He wouldn't say, but it seemed unlikely. He advised school boards and communities to plan ahead in their budgets if they needed security guards or metal detectors.

In the end, there were still more questions than answers, but participants took some comfort in feeling they were taking steps, even baby steps, toward protecting children.

"We can't have knee-jerk reactions," said New Jersey School Boards Association president John Bulina, a member of the Tabernacle Board of Education in Burlington County. He noted that the forum, which attracted about 600 school board members, educators, and administrators, was the biggest gathering in New Jersey on school safety.

"There isn't a simplistic solution," Bulina said. "We have to come up with something that is going to be the best solution for all of us because the safety of our students is paramount."


Contact Kathy Boccella at 856-779-3812, or follow on Twitter at @kathyboccella.

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