Belleville School Board Trustees and teachers
are split on the effectiveness of the recently enacted Belleville school safety
At a contentious Monday night meeting, members of the Belleville Education Association vocalized their issues with the school’s security measures after and during a presentation by Trustee Joseph Longo.
In a 90-minute power-point presentation, Longo argued that Belleville needed ID Cards, cameras in classrooms and armed guards to prevent school crises. Teachers argued that the measures wouldn’t be effective in preventing emergencies and that the money was needed for classroom programs.
Long led off his presentation by saying that tragedies like the Newtown school shooting can happen anywhere and that 387 school shootings have occurred since 1992 and showing photos from news coverage of recent school emergencies.
“The reason we have to see these pictures is because there’s a tendency to forget,” Longo said.
Longo reached out to Belleville Police Chief Joseph Rotunda after the Newtown shooting to discuss changes to school security, which ultimately led to the hiring of former Belleville police captain and mayor Bill Escott to head school security.
Longo said that in addition to armed security at the district’s nine schools, the schools were outfitted with technological security measures including cameras both inside and outside the school as well as ID cards designed to monitor student and staff movement in the schools, at a cost of under $2 million financed over five years.
ID cards are central to the security measures. Students and teachers would not be allowed inside the schools without them and, more controversially, they would be embedded with radio frequency emitting microchips. The chips could be used to track movement and be swiped to get into classrooms and bathrooms. Longo said as an example that the bathroom doors could be set to only allow five students at a time, and that a sixth student would have to wait until one of the students exited.
The security system connects the district directly to the police department. Longo said the upgraded phone system includes a direct line to police headquarters and police can access video and audio feeds from the schools’ surveillance system. In addition, police can remotely lock or unlock doors in emergencies.
Longo stressed that the security measures put Belleville at the forefront of schools technology.
“In some cases we’ll be one of only ten or 11 schools in the country,” Longo said.
Longo said that the security system was comparable to ones recently installed in places like Old Bridge, Baltimore and Dallas. He said the cost would be financed over five years and would be less than what the district could pay in lawsuits if a fatal emergency happened.
Michael Mignone, president of the teachers union the Belleville Education Association, read from a prepared statement during the public comments section of the meeting. Before the meeting, Mignone and the BEA sent out flyers to Belleville homes decrying the security system was a waste and that its cost, which he estimated at $2 million, should have been directed towards classroom needs.
Mignone said Belleville school employees had been shut out of the discussion over the new security measures. He also contended that the vendor that installed the cameras was not licensed at the time the bid was accepted and alleged that school policy could prohibit the use of those cameras.
“The policy is vague and contradictory at best,” Mignone said. A board member said that the policy Mignone cited only applied to use of images in outside media.
When Mignone went over the five-minute time limit, other union members took to the podium to continue reading his statement.
Tensions between officials and members of the BEA were evident throughout the meeting, with school officials calling for police to eject an audience member for disrupting the meeting by shouting out comments.
Kathy Lorenz, a Belleville Middle School teacher, said that the security measures might be ineffective against an emergency. She noted that students are often responsible for school shootings and that all Belleville students could freely enter the schools with ID cards and asked why metal detectors weren’t being installed.