MORRIS COUNTY — New Jersey State Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco proposed life-saving legislation based upon Responsible School Violence Prevention, Preparation and Protection, a program developed in 2018 by Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon in collaboration with the Morris County Police Chiefs Association.
Assemblyman Bucco’s bill, A-5242, was announced at a news conference at the Morris County Office of Emergency Management in Parsippany, with Sheriff Gannon, Morris County Prosecutor Fredric M. Knapp, Morris County Police Chiefs Association President, Butler Police Chief Ciro Chimento, and other law enforcement, education and mental health professional stakeholders present.
Recognizing the priority of keeping schools safe from violence and thwarting potential bloodshed in the pre-attack stage, the proposed legislation would mandate funding the necessary costs for scientifically-sound training for law enforcement, mental health professionals, teachers and other school staff and students to identify, assess and report behaviors that signal potential threats to school safety.
The legislation would fund a pilot RSVP-3 program specifically in the counties of Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Morris, Passaic and Union and first class cities of Newark and Jersey City – all part of a designated federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) zone.
“This effort here is a multidisciplinary approach to incidences of school violence,” Sheriff Gannon said.
“We all know that our most vulnerable populations are in our schools,” he said. “They’re our children, they’re our grandchildren. They’re students. They’re paraprofessionals. They’re administrators and educators. They are people who keep the lights on in the schools and they’re all near and dear to our hearts.”
Assemblyman Bucco, who co-authored legislation to allow Class III officers in schools, with his father, state Senator Tony Bucco, said: “This bill, this RSVP-3 bill, will hopefully enable us to prevent an incident from actually occurring.”
Referring to a study the United States Secret Service conducted of 28 mass incidents in which at least three people were harmed, Assemblyman Bucco said:
“There are commonalities in the attackers and patterns that take place that drive the logic behind this RSVP legislation. Seventy-nine percent of the attackers made alarming comments before the attacks. Half of the attackers were motivated by overwhelming job, school or family issues,” Assemblyman Bucco said.
“More than half of the attackers had criminal, mental health or substance abuse histories. This legislation is our next logical step,” Assemblyman Bucco said.
“I’d like to thank Sheriff Gannon for bringing this to our attention and working with me on this. If we can get funding in place to get as many people trained under this program we can achieve our ultimate goal and stop the next attack before it gets started,” he said.
Prosecutor Knapp called the RSVP-3 program “pioneering.”
“It’s proactive as opposed to reactive,” Prosecutor Knapp said.
RSVP-3 was developed in Morris County in response to the February 14, 2018, killings of 17 students and staff at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. With the focus on averting violence before tactical teams had to rush to schools, Sheriff Gannon and the Morris County Police Chiefs Association drew together mental health leaders, educators and law enforcement professionals.
The Morris County Board of Freeholders and UASI then each contributed $75,000, which was used to fund curriculum, authored by Sigma Threat Management Associates, on how school leaders, mental health experts and police should assess, evaluate and respond to threats to school safety. An author of the curriculum, Dr. Marisa Randazzo, in November 2018 trained 75 leaders on how to develop assessment and evaluation tools that differentiate, for example, between a child who draws a picture of a gun at school and a student whose grades are slipping and exhibits anti-social behavior or makes concerning comments.
Dr. Randazzo and Dr. Melissa Reeves, the past president of the National Association of School Psychologists and former Chairman of the NASP National School Safety and Crisis Response Committee, are scheduled to return to Morris County next week to train about 40 teachers and school staff in how to scientifically assess concerning behavior to determine whether school safety may be at risk.
Morris County Department of Law and Public Safety Director Scott DiGiralomo said police have plenty of trained officers and tactical equipment to respond to violence in schools should it erupt. But, he said, a plan for assessing behavior before it reaches a lethal level was missing before RSVP-3. Training, he said, typically focused on “after the fact scenarios.”
“The part that was missing from our model is how do we prevent it. And RSVP-3 really fills that gap,” Director DiGiralomo said. “If we prevent that incident from ever happening, we don’t have to implement all those other things we’ve trained with.”
“We really feel that the targeted violence incident with the best outcome is one that never happened. And RSVP-3 gives us that opportunity to prevent that,” Director DiGiralomo said.
Ciro Chimento, the Police Chiefs Association President, said of the proposed legislation: “When the worst-case scenario plays out within Morris County, the best kicks in from its local police departments. Officers throughout the county are the best trained within the state and the RSVP program will certainly elevate our law enforcement officers to an even higher standard.”
Morris County Director of the Division of Community and Behavioral Health Services Laurie Becker said RSVP-3 would further strengthen a solid base of mental health and intervention programs in place.
“Averting potential tragedy is what it’s all about,” Director Becker said.
Steve Forte, Superintendent of the Denville School District, said of the legislation: “The fact that everybody is involved in this, that everybody is taking it seriously, that we’ve moved past the ‘it can’t happen here,’ I think is a great, great step.”
Former Denville Police Chief Christopher Wagner, a past president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, praised Assemblyman Bucco for being at the forefront of school safety issues and the partnerships between law enforcement, schools and mental health leaders.
“Shortly after 9-11 we in law enforcement talked about how we couldn’t work in silos anymore. And school security, school threat assessment, is certainly no different than that,” Wagner said.
“We have spent tens of thousands, if not millions of dollars, on training and equipment in the horrible chance we might have to respond to one of these events. It’s my hope that we can attend some training and hold training for much less money and never touch those tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and never have to use bleeding control and never have to reunify kids,” Wagner said.