By Ron Leir
In the wake of December’s horrific shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the Belleville public school district has – like others around the nation – taken steps to make schools safer.
To that end, on the recommendation of Interim Superintendent Helene Feldman, on Jan. 14, the Belleville Board of Education:
* hired retired Belleville cop William Escott as interim safety consultant, for three months at $7,500 per month,
* approved the job description for a new position, part-time school safety officers, and,
* retained Clarity Systems Consulting Group Inc. of Mine Hill to audit telecommunications and security technology within the district for $11,980.
Two weeks later, the board appointed 18 individuals – all retired cops from various law enforcement agencies – as part-time school safety officers at a salary of $24 an hour.
Escott was a member of the Belleville Police Department for 25 years, retiring in 1994 as chief of detectives. Since then, he has worked as a private investigator.
Escott’s contract calls for him to “provide security consulting services to the Board of Education” including “reviewing and revising security measures, policies and implementation; determining the security needs of each [school] building and program; hiring such security officers and professionals as may be deemed necessary; coordinating security efforts between the district and law enforcement agencies; supervis[ing] and direct[ing] such security personnel as are employed by the district; and such other services as the Board of Education may determine necessary.”
Feldman said that Escott was a natural choice for the job since, by virtue of his longevity in Belleville, “he’s very familiar with our schools.”
The new security chief has conferred with Belleville Police Chief John Rotonda and Capt. Victor Mesce on school security strategies. Township police went to Belleville High School on Jan. 30 to talk to administrators and teachers about dealing with school attacks.
That conference is being followed up with active training of staff in how to respond to potential and actual danger situations through school lockdowns and other actions, Feldman said. School safety officers will be deployed with a pair assigned to each of Belleville’s nine schools. They’ll work alternating two- and three-day a week schedules during the school day, Feldman and Escott said.
“We’re also looking at an after-school program that will be enhanced by a security presence,” Feldman said.
Feldman said that Escott and Vincent Fiscella, the district’s director of buildings and grounds, have visited each school to check doors, access points, and even outdoor perimeter areas.
“We’re checking everything that could be a security risk,” the superintendent added.
Based on an assessment being made by the Clarity firm and Escott, surveillance cameras “will be going in wherever they’re deemed to be needed,” Feldman said. “We’re trying to make sure all angles are covered.”
As a means of controlling intra-school traffic, Feldman said that new security protocol now requires people to call ahead before entering a school so the individual is expected by school personnel. If that doesn’t happen – say, for example, a vendor is delivering supplies – a school safety officer “will come outside and check you out,” Feldman said. And that safety officer will escort the individual to the main office, she added.
“One glaring deficiency we found in the existing system,” Escott noted last week, “was that once [visitors] came into a school, they had carte blanche to go wherever they wanted.” Hereafter, presumably, that won’t be happening, he said.
To prevent possible gaps in coverage, Feldman said the safety officers “will be taking lunch on their posts.”
It was Escott’s hope to have his safety patrol in place by Feb. 4.
Among his safety squad are five ex-Belleville cops, five Newark Police retirees, two former Essex County Corrections Department officers, and one from each of these agencies: Nutley Police, Livingston Police, Essex County Sheriff’s Office, New Jersey State Police, Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and New Jersey Department of Corrections.