There will be no school resource officer coming to Columbia High School — at least not in the near future.
The decision was announced at the June 20 South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting by Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider. “We are not recommending” the SRO at this time, said Schneider, who cited feedback at a school safety meeting held on May 16.
The towns of Maplewood and South Orange had proposed paying for two-thirds of the cost of the officer, after grants for the officer had been denied. However, numerous students spoke on May 16 about their discomfort with police. The students were overwhelming African American.
One student’s comments in May seemed to sum up the thoughts of many when she said that police uniforms are “very threatening to me. No disrespect, but because of things that go on around us, things going on in the media. Knowing all the things going on in the media, why now? I don’t necessarily think having a [police] officer would be beneficial.”
After the announcement on June 20, many School Board members cited the need to listen to the voices of the CHS students who spoke; however, Board member Madhu Pai pushed back a bit.
“An SRO can be a positive force,” she said. Pai invoked Sgt. Mike Morrison, who previously served as CHS’s SRO. “If we can have courageous conversations about police brutality, we can have courageous conversations about the good that men and women in uniform can do.” Pai added, “We can also endeavor to educate our students. SROs can save lives and change hearts…. I worry that the current decision simply spares our students the uncomfortable transition from being fearful, wary adolescents to becoming confident, responsible, civic minded adults who will one day treat policemen, firemen, soldiers and first responders with the gratitude and appreciation that they deserve.” (See Pai’s full statement below.)
Pai also pointed out that there are already fully armed, fully uniformed police officers in district schools, noting the DARE program in the elementary schools. “We need to just stop and take a moment and make sure that we as a district are not perpetuating those negative perceptions.”
Board member Donna Smith agreed: “I respect the decision not to go ahead… [but] we are losing an opportunity to have our students get to know a police officer who is a friend not a disciplinarian.”
However, Board member Chris Sabin pushed back: “This is not about police officers. This is about race in our community…. Both sides need to be respectful of each other and listen and understand that this is not the right time. If they (the kids) are saying this, we have to listen. Something triggers when you are in middle school. Things change. It’s not just the police officers. We have to take a step back from that.”
Statement Concerning School Resource Officer by Board of Education Second Vice President Madhu Pai: