An investigation by NBC 4 New York's I-Team has raised questions about mandated security drills in some New Jersey schools despite a renewed sense of national urgency when it comes to ensuring students, teachers and staff are prepared in the case of emergencies.
Deadly school shootings like those at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, prompted changes to state laws across the nation.
Mandates for performing school emergency drills vary. New Jersey has some of the strictest laws on the books. Every school, public or private, must conduct one security drill a month or at least 10 drills a year in the Garden State. In New York, schools are only required to conduct one security drill a year under state law. Connecticut schools must conduct at least three drills a year.
“The purpose of the drills is really to have educators start thinking outside the box, to start using their heads about alternatives to what they're faced with,” said Pat Kissane, executive director of the New Jersey arm of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
The I-Team reviewed records from public schools across 10 counties in New Jersey and found more than 150 questionable drill records in 23 school districts.
Some drills were recorded has having been carried out on weekends, during spring and winter recesses. Others appeared to have been conducted on school holidays.
While the legal specifics on mandated school security drills vary, at least one element is fundamentally the same -- and clear: drills must be performed during school hours.
According to the New Jersey Department of Education, school principals must document each security drill on a “security drill record” form. These record forms are forwarded to the school district. There, district officials are supposed to certify that the drills have been completed and they must send a “statement of assurance” to the education department as well as their county prosecutor’s office.
At no point are officials from the state education department required to review a school district’s drill records.
While many districts willingly gave the I-Team their school security drill records, some refused to hand them over, contending it would compromise school security. Ultimately, the I-Team sued 45 school districts to force schools to make details of their public drill records available to the public.
The Hoboken School District had several schools with questionable drill records, the I-Team found. One drill at Hoboken High School was recorded on September 17, 2012, but the school was closed for Rosh Hashanah. A school administrator told the I-Team officials are reviewing their dates.
Weehawken High School also had a handful of questionable dates. The school explained all of them, blaming clerical errors identified by a district official in several cases. The drill record forms were never updated to reflect the correct information.
The Paterson School District has more schools within it than other New Jersey school districts -- and its drill records also had the most discrepancies, the I-Team found. Many records indicated drills were held on school holidays and weekends or when school was not in session.
School officials told the I-Team someone had entered the wrong dates for all the questionable drills. For example, a drill that was recorded on Sunday, May 4, 2014, was supposed to say May 21, which was a regular school day, the district said.
Nearly all the school districts the I-Team contacted said the questionable drill times were typos and all drills were conducted during school hours. But under state law, they don't have to be.
Officials with the state education department repeatedly told the I-Team that "State statutes and regulations do not specifically indicate whether students shall be present during a required drill.”
“Occasionally the school is going to want to test out the presence of animals or SWAT Teams,” said New Jersey Department of Education commissioner David Hespe. “We know there will be some circumstances where children's presence might be difficult. But that should not happen often.”
Hespe says it is a local school district’s responsibility to ensure these drills are carried out and reiterated the state education department does not review the drill records. However, Hespe says state inspectors conduct surprise drill observations to find out how well prepared a school is.
“You have identified an issue that we have that’s a crisis right now,” Democratic state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, who co-sponsored the state law that requires schools to conduct security drills, said of the I-Team report.
“If they are interpreting the law differently than we intended it to be, there has to be some clarification,” she said. “So that the spirit of the law captures the intent and that’s the safety of students and staff during school hours.”