Across the country, districts debate how to make school campuses safer.
“Every day there’s a marked police car in front of the high school. That sends a message that we take it seriously,” said Fort Lee Schools Superintendent Kenneth Rota.
Fort Lee has six public schools and two local police officers assigned to them as school resource officers. But if the police department needs them to respond to an emergency in the city, it can, and will, pull them from the schools.
As of July 1, a new state law creates a new category of officers, a so-called class III. Police officers who’ve retired within the last three years can undergo training to carry a gun and protect a campus, but only a campus. For the upcoming school year, the Fort Lee district will hire and pay three of them, who still will answer to the local police chief.
“We’re hoping that the class IIIs will be involved in more community-based policing as well, getting involved in the school, in the classrooms, maybe even teaching the DARE or LEAD program,” Rota said. “Myself, I’m not really a fan of bringing an armed guard in to the building, but when you talk about a police officer, that’s a whole other level of training and expertise. That makes the difference.”
“What we train these police officers is how to work with juveniles in the school setting. Policing in the schools isn’t the same as policing in the street,” said Fort Lee Deputy Police Chief Patrick Kissane.
Seventeen years ago, Kissane founded the New Jersey Association of School Resource Officers. It advocates for the training of current and retired police officers to do the job. The process includes 40 hours of academy training, background checks, physicals, psychological examinations and firearms training and refreshers on constitutional rights.
“We want to make sure that if they were retired and if they were off the police job for a length of time, that they meet the same requirements that any new police officer would meet. We don’t feel it’s overkill, we feel it’s appropriate,” Kissane said.
In Bloomfield, the board of education approved more than $500,000 to hire some of the class III officers for the elementary schools. Some parents found out and have strongly resisted.
The parents organized the group Bloomfield Families for Sensible Safety, saying Bloomfield Police have very low response times and that puts them at ease and they oppose firearms in elementary schools.
“We are insisting that there is no need for them to be there on a daily basis, and pointing out the fact that it actually puts our kids at greater danger of there being a weapon incident at the school,” said Noel Gatts, a member of the group.
“In my opinion, it sends the message that school is not a safe place. That school requires this level of protection, and that we’re turning our schools into fortresses or prisons,” said group member Ariana Bullard.
Ramapo College psychology professor Leah Warner has a daughter attending one Bloomfield elementary school. Warner says her research shows threat assessment, mental health counseling and other prevention methods have benefits.
“There’s efforts called ‘man locks,’ which is the idea that there’s a double entry to the school. Where you have to have one entry and then the person’s assessment before they can go in again. That, and bulletproof glass, things that actually prevent someone from entering,” Warner said.
The parents favor schools installing silent panic alarms to alert law enforcement of emergencies. Three years ago, a state task force said there were so many different types of alarms that, “We do not think it is prudent at this time to recommend that the State require that panic alarms be installed in every school building.”
But a panic alarm bill, known as Alyssa’s Law, is moving through the state Legislature.
The irony on school safety is parents and police agree on the statistical rarity of school shootings and the fear that such shootings drives the call to hire armed officers. However, officers can still have an impact.
“They are someone that the students can approach. They are somebody that the students learn from, that they can emulate as role models,” Kissane said.
“Actually, there’s research to suggest that it will do the opposite. It will actually create more harms for them,” Warner countered.
The Bloomfield board had planned to hire nine retired and armed officers, one for each elementary school in town, for the upcoming year. Parent protests seemed to have slowed or halted the process, at least for now.