Responding to a recent string of shootings across the country, Burlington County is dedicating half of its annual capital budget — $20 million — to enhance security in 21 of its public high schools.
The money will go toward creating entrance vestibules, metal detectors, panic alarms, scan-card systems, and other measures.
Freeholder Kate Gibbs touted the voluntary initiative as the first of its kind in New Jersey, saying the county was filling in the budget gaps of financially strained towns and school districts.
“Our school buildings should be safe places where students can learn, educators can teach, and parents can feel comfortable sending their children every morning,” said Gibbs, joined by law enforcement and school officials outside Rancocas Regional High School in Mount Holly on Tuesday afternoon.
Each participating school will first sign up for site evaluations, to be completed by an architectural firm by the end of August. The consultant will analyze what security measures each school needs, and the county will then accept applications for grant money until October. The funds will not be used to dictate staffing guidelines or safety procedures.
“There is no cookie-cutter approach to school safety,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs said the county hopes to eventually open the grant money up to middle and elementary schools.
The initiative comes months after a shooting in Parkland, Fla., sparked a national debate about gun violence, and weeks after 10 people were killed and 13 others wounded in a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. The suspect in the Texas shooting, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis, is charged with capital murder and aggravated assault.
In the fall, New Jersey voters will decide whether to approve a $1 billion bond issue for security upgrades at community colleges, high schools, and vocational high schools.
“Sometimes what happens nationally dictates what we need to make a priority,” Gibbs said. “I believe after what I’ve seen at Parkland and Santa Fe that this needs to be a priority.”
At Rancocas Valley, where 2,100 students walk the halls of the 300,000-square-foot property, facility updates are imminent.
The school has three buildings, with four entrances for students monitored by security guards and 200 cameras throughout, said Superintendent Chris Heilig. There is a main entrance vestibule for guests at the front of the school. The school does not have metal detectors.
He said the district will apply for a $1 million grant from the county by Sept. 1 with a goal of expanding the entrance vestibule and adding a security check-in window, among other projects. Under a tight budget passed in May, Heilig said, the anticipated security measures would be difficult to fund without the county’s help.
“We want to better monitor and screen people before they actually get into the building,” Heilig said.
The county initiative is expected to be approved during a freeholders meeting Wednesday night.
Threats of school shootings occurred in South Jersey following the incident in Parkland, including one by a 10-year-old in the Franklin Township School District in Gloucester County who was subsequently arrested and charged.