Districts can apply to the county for funding to be used for capital enhancements related to school security.
By Melissa Riker
Burlington County is taking the lead in security enhancements, being the first county in the state to offer a $20 million grant program that will allow school buildings to be more secure.
Rancocas Valley High School Superintendent Christopher Heilig was first to speak at a press conference held outside the high school on June 12.
“In the morning when students step off the school bus here at RV and all across Burlington County, parents are trusting that their child is arriving safe and secure and in an environment where he or she can learn and grow,” Heilig said. “As superintendents, we believe it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to ensure that happens each and every day.”
There has been an undeniable need for more security in schools throughout the nation due to the approximately 300 shooting incidents at schools across America over the past five years, with many occuring at high schools.
People across the nation are demanding action, and Heilig said, “Keeping our students safe starts with enhancing the physical security of our school buildings.”
He introduced Burlington County Freeholder Director Kate Gibbs, as he commended her for offering to help in such a large way.
“As an elected official, I refuse to stand by and do nothing while we wait for the next Parkland, Santa Fe or Sandy Hook tragedy to occur. That is why today we’re taking action and we’re making $20 million available through a county grant program to encourage all 21 public high schools in Burlington County to invest in their school buildings and make them safer and more secure,” Gibbs said. “As far as we know, this groundbreaking program is the first of its kind in the state of New Jersey and possibly in the nation.”
The $20 million equates to half of the county’s annual capital budget, and there is no anticipated impact to county property taxes, as less-pressing issues will be deferred and school safety will be prioritized.
Gibbs stated she hopes this will be a model for how all levels of government can work together to protect students and teachers from school violence.
“Our school buildings should be safe places where students can learn, educators can teach and parents can feel comfortable sending their children every morning,” Gibbs said.
Participating schools must submit grant applications to the county and agree to a security evaluation by a highly qualified architectural firm.
Security enhancements that may be made include new entrance vestibules, scan card systems, portable screening devices, panic alarms, entry buzzers and security cameras.
Gibbs noted the program will not dictate safety procedures, staffing guidelines or other considerations that are best left to the individual school districts.
Once all high schools in the county have the opportunity to apply, the program may be expanded to middle and elementary schools if funding is available.
Applications and school evaluations are expected to begin as early as this summer.