A school is still the safest place

Published on Friday, January 18, 2013

Loretta Bradley
This from a New Jersey father’s Facebook status:

“There have been a few things over the last couple of days that have really brought the Newtown tragedy home. One is discovering that James Mattioli, a victim of the shooting, shares my daughter's birthday. The other was when we decided to prepare her for school tomorrow thinking that some of the older children might talk about the event. I kept it simple and when she pushed to know more I said, ‘A bad man did some bad things in a school far away.’

Her response: ‘That sounds like a tier two,’ and she went on to explain how she practices hiding in her classroom.

It kind of took my breath away.”

This father’s status update describes an experience that was surely repeated many times over across our nation. Yet, while it’s chilling that a little girl must practice how to “hide from a bad man doing bad things” in her school, the most important message that the teacher and the school conveys in those drills is, “You are safe.”

But what is new to the whole country is old news to our members: we’ve been teaching our students how to be safe in school for as long as there have been schools.

Minutes from the 66th Annual Meeting of the New Jersey State Teachers’ Association in 1920 (now called the NJEA Convention) note the successful passage of an association-supported law that schools offer a course in fire prevention. In 1967, the law was updated to require two fire drills per month in every school in the state.

But Columbine, and later 9/11, taught us that fire is not the only danger for which we and our students should be prepared. And as in 1919, it was an NJEA member at the forefront of making sure schools are places where our students are safe.

Loretta Bradley, a teacher from Passaic County, knew that staff and students were well-versed in what to do in the event of a fire, and that school’s had contingency plans for other emergencies. As a teacher, however, she knew that without regular practice, staff and students would not truly be safe.

A report commissioned by Gov. Corzine in 2007, the New Jersey K-12 School Security Task Force Report, called for regular drills in non-fire emergencies. Bradley knew that without someone advocating for it, the report would gather dust. She was determined that that not happen.

Bradley approached then-Assemblyman Fred Scalera, D-Passaic, and suggested that the drills recommended in the report become the law.  She didn’t let up. Her friend and colleague Maureen McGowan said she was on her legislators about the bill every time she saw them. Scalera said that Bradley was never nasty about it, but she always made sure to get her point across.

With cosponsor Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden, Scalera proposed A-3002, which required that one of the two monthly drills be reserved to enable practice for a wide range of emergencies. Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, and then-Sen. John Girgenti, D-Passaic, introduced it in the Senate. Gov. Jon Corzine signed A-3002 into law on Jan. 11, 2009.

Regrettably, Bradley did not live to see the enactment of her idea. She lost her battle with cancer on Nov. 1, 2008. But the law for which she fought helps schools be prepared for everything from a violent intruder to a derailed tank car leaking vinyl chloride.

Thanks to Bradley and her predecessors in 1919 and 1967, as well as everyone else who speaks up for safe and healthy school environments—and thanks to you—children are safer in school than almost anywhere else, including their own homes.

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