By Ron Leir
The Belleville Board of Education believes there is safety in numbers … more than 2 million … dollars, that is.
That’s how much the board is investing from its operating budget during the next five years in hopes of delivering a security system it believes will be second to none in quality to ensure that its students and staff will be safe from the threat of violence.
Five weeks after the Newtown, Conn., school shootings in mid-December 2012 that took the lives of 20 children and six adults, the board took the first step in beefing up protection of its nine school buildings with about 4,700 students by hiring retired local police captain as its school security director and 18 armed school safety officers and three alternates assigned, on a rotation, to clear visitors to schools.
Since then, the board agreed to extend that security net by acquiring what it characterized as sophisticated detection equipment from a contractor, Clarity Technologies Group LLC of Mine Hill, secured through public bidding, for every school.
When CTG was awarded the security contract by the Belleville BOE, a teachers’ union leader alleged that the company wasn’t properly licensed but board member Joseph Longo dismissed that claim, saying: “We have no issues with licensing.”
“The hiring of school safety officers combined with the installation of this industry-leading technology will make us the most secure school district in New Jersey, if not the entire nation,” Longo asserted.
On its website, the BOE says it figures to have in place, by the end of December, a “stateof- the-art network design, security and surveillance system” featuring “nearly 1,000 cameras installed throughout the district [including classrooms and school hallways], complete with person-tracking capabilities, as well as new electronic access control at all entry points throughout the [school] buildings.”
School safety officers will be able to see visitors who activate an intercom at the school entrance on a video phone.
Students will be issued “swipe” ID cards that will be “read” electronically via a technology known as RFID – Radio Frequency Identification – which, as Wikipedia explains, “is the wireless noncontact use of radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to transfer data, for the purposes of automatically identifying and tracking tags attached to objects.”
This infrastructure, together with surveillance cameras school building perimeters, will be part of emergency “call” stations to be set up outside schools. So sensitive are these cameras, Longo said, that they can distinguish between human, animals and objects.
Devices will also be installed in school buses to facilitate “geo-fencing,” Longo said, meaning that “it will allow us to know if a bus goes outside its route.” If a child went missing, township police could use portable RFID readers to try and pick up signals from the child’s swipe card, Longo said.
Additionally, inside schools, every classroom will be equipped with a telephone and voice mailbox that a teacher can use to communicate with the principal, central office and security chief. Township police can “watch and listen in” as well via hookups at headquarters. Teachers can also activate panic buttons to alert superiors and police to a medical emergency or the need for a potential lockdown. The district will have an in-house command station where school supervisors and security personnel can monitor school locations on any of 20 computer screens in real time and review footage of any incidents after the fact. Police headquarters will have the same capability.
Reacting to invasion of privacy and “Big Brother” concerns raised by some teachers and parents, Longo said: “We have no plan to spy on anybody. … And there are no plans to use cameras as part of the new teacher evaluation procedure.”
And, Longo added, there was no indication of any potential health risks to students from wearing the swipe cards.
Longo said the contractor has finished installing the systems at the high school, is nearing completion at the Middle School and is currently working at Elementary Schools 7 and 8.
“One challenge is all our buildings are old so running wires and putting in hardware is complicated but by the end of the calendar year, everything should be completed,” he said. There are an estimated 500 classrooms, plus gyms, auditoriums and buses due to be hooked up.
The system will be designed to not only control entry points to schools for possible lockdowns but also to prevent kids from entering school bathrooms if an electronic sensor detects that the facility already has the maximum it can take, Longo said.
How unique is Belleville’s security surveillance system? “We’ll be the 11th [school] district in the country to use this RFID technology; the others are all in Texas,” Longo said.
Some community members – like Councilman-at-large Michael Nicosia – have questioned the need for cameras in classrooms, “when the idea is to stop someone from getting into a school before he can start shooting people,” Longo said the district would prefer to be overly protective to eliminate one more possible security weakness.
“I don’t want ever to have to tell a parent that a child is dead because we didn’t have it in our budget to do everything we could to keep that child safe,” he said. “As people become aware of how seriously we’re monitoring our schools, my belief is that would be a deterrent [to prospective shooters] as well. It’s impossible to prevent everything but we can mitigate the situation as best we can. This way, we’re telling people, ‘if you do something bad, we’re going to get you.’ ’’