N.J. committee approves new school safety, teen mental health measures

Students at Cherry Hill High School East staged a sit-in Monday morning in support of teacher Timothy Locke.

File photo: A school bus passes by Cherry Hill High School East in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday weighed several bills that supporters say would address teen mental health and school safety.

It comes just weeks after a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where a teenage gunman killed 19 students and two teachers.

The Assembly Education Committee cleared bipartisan legislation that, if enacted, would require school districts to develop “behavioral threat assessment teams” in each school district, and require that in-service training for school employees on safety and security include instruction on behavioral threat assessment.

“The loss of 19 children in Uvalde … has us all distressed, really distressed,”  said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden), the bill’s sponsor and chair of the Assembly Education Committee.

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Lampitt originally introduced the legislation in 2018 following a mass shooting at Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland, Florida, but it had not passed committee in prior sessions. The shooting in Parkland resulted in 17 deaths, including 14 students and three school staff members.

So far in 2022, there have been 27 school shootings in the U.S., according to Education Week. That report said there have been 119 school shootings since 2018.

“I feel like I’m on the verge of crying,” Lampitt said. “We’ve never been so challenged, we’ve never been at this critical juncture and our concern is if we don’t continue to challenge ourselves to do more, be more, help our children … then I don’t know what more we should be doing.”

Assemblyman Brandon Umba (R-Burlington) said he would introduce an amendment to require law enforcement to also receive behavioral threat assessment training in schools.

The committee ultimately tabled Umba’s motion to include the amendment, and Lampitt signaled she would support it as a standalone bill.

Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) introduced the school threat assessment team measure in the Senate. Senate leaders have yet to schedule a hearing on the bill.

The committee also advanced bills that would establish a four-year pilot program to create student mental health assistance programs in 15 school districts, and permit some mental health professionals working in school districts to refer students to private professional counselors.

Susan Tellone, clinical director for the Freehold-based Society For The Prevention Of Teen Suicide, testified at Thursday’s hearing. She said many school professionals don’t feel equipped to handle student mental health issues, and that the pandemic exacerbated mental health concerns among students.

“Increases in levels of anxiety, stress, and feelings of helplessness and disappointment due to the quarantine and isolation has been catastrophic to our youth,” Tellone said.

Mental health-related emergency room visits among teens and preteens aged 12 to 17 increased by 31% during the first year of the pandemic, according to the CDC.

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According to the New Jersey Education Association, the state ranks low nationally for known school shootings. The New Jersey Department of Education reported that weapons incidents made up 3% of more than 28,000 reported incidents at schools during the 2018-2019 school year (the last year data is publicly available).

Incidents involving knives made up most of the reported cases, though there were six incidents involving handguns and 22 involving air guns, BB guns, and pellet guns. There were 200 incidents in which the weapon type was not disclosed.

Despite a low number of incidents involving guns in New Jersey, lawmakers said they want to get ahead of any increases.

“We go into denial about the way kids behave … and we end up with these shootings,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex). “We’ve got to get used to this, this is not a time when we can look the other way.”

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