After an evening of frank discussion on Monday night, the likelihood that Columbia High School will hire a School Resource Officer seems remote.
Although CHS did have a School Resource Officer — or SRO — from 2001 through 2008, the program ended due to budget cuts. The idea of bringing back the program gained traction after two students brought weapons to district schools last June (Maplewood Middle School and CHS).
Following a Town Hall on Safety held in June 2015, the towns and police departments of South Orange and Maplewood applied for grants to support school resource officers in the two middle schools and Columbia High School.
Although the grants were not funded, the towns and their police departments more recently approached the school district and offered to pay two-thirds of the cost of a police officer dedicated to CHS (with the South Orange-Maplewood School District picking up the remaining third).
The SRO would potentially be placed in the high school, would have an office, and would work in the school, speaking in classrooms and participating in classes.
In response to the offer, Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Ramos said, “Board of Education members said, ‘Before we do that, let’s have a forum to see what the community’s appetite is for this.'”
As the meeting began, Ramos clearly anticipated a potentially contentious discussion, particularly in light of recent bias incidents at CHS and South Orange Middle School. Asking for a open-minded approach, Ramos cautioned: “Everyone in the room is well intended…. We may not agree on one idea or another, but we want what’s best for children and adults. This is not an us vs. them.”
Ramos, Maplewood Police Chief Robert Cimino, South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll and former SRO and retired MPD Sgt. Mike Morrison spoke of how the key element in having an SRO is to build trust between students and police.
SROs are “trained to teach classes and support students and families with early intervention if there is a problem,” said Cimino. Cimino noted the many New Jersey districts that have SROs including Montclair, West Orange, Orange, Hamilton Township, Toms River, Morristown, Bridgewater-Raritan and more.
Chief Kroll seemed to sense the opposition in the room: “Am I in favor of it? Yes, but if it is something that is going to effect detrimentally the education process, I wouldn’t be for it.” Kroll did talk about the success of the former CHS SRO program with Morrison as SRO: “He wasn’t seen as a police officer; he was seen as a friend. To me that’s where the program works. I understand the concerns, that’s why we’re here to discuss issues.” Kroll also noted that the school would be involved in the process of selecting the officer.
“My day was pretty much spent like a teacher,” said Morrison who said he is still in touch with students: “If you get the right officer and work with the school and the community, the program will blossom.”
However, Rutgers Criminal Justice professors (and district parents) Bob Apel and Sara Wakefield said there was little research to back up the decision to have SROs. Apel said there was “not sufficient studies” and “no real evidence of success.” Conversely, he said that there was “some evidence that they can do harm around criminalizing misbehavior” and also around potentially racially profiling students. Apel also said that incidents of violence including assaults, threats and fights were actually down at CHS over the past 12 years and that weapons violations “have been completely flat” in the same timeframe.
Apel surmised that the recent desire for an SRO was “more about the publicity surrounding recent incidents.”
Then came the comments from the audience members.
Numerous students spoke about their discomfort with police. The students were overwhelming African American. A MAC (Minority Achievement Committee) scholar and CHS junior said she worried that a police officer in the school “perpetuates mass incarceration rates of African Americans” and said that “small evidence of past success cannot predict future success.”
Another female MAC scholar said that the police uniform is “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.”
“It’s very unfortunate that your uniforms are scary to us, but it is, and it’s not like we don’t have a reason for it being scary,” she added.
School board student representative Nina Kambili said she “objected to the idea that this decision seems to already have been made. I’m uncomfortable with the fact that Principal [Elizabeth] Aaron already has an implementation plan. The research isn’t there. I’m just wondering what the point of this forum is if the decision has already been made.” Kambili said that the forum had not been adequately promoted to students. “I guess I’m a little annoyed that we are having what appears to be a sham of a forum.”
Both Ramos and Aaron pushed back gently but firmly to Kambili’s assertions.
Said Ramos, “I want you to know that the decision has not been made. The idea that some folks think this forum is a sham points to the notion that no good deed goes unpunished…. Ms. Aaron has a plan because the board chairman said to me, ‘Before we go into the forum we have to have a plan.'”
Ramos then said that as a former building leader (he was principal for 10 years at Norwalk High School), “I’m mostly concerned about outsiders coming in. God forbid something happens, someone will point to me and say, “‘How come you didn’t….?'”
Later, Ramos emotionally recounted how he still maintains a home in Connecticut and weekly drives there. “And every time I see the Sandy Hook sign near Newtown … it can happen anywhere.”
Aaron responded, “It’s my job to have thought this through. It’s my job, and to have thought about all of the issues that are coming up, so that’s why I have answers.”
Still, Ramos’ comment caused one parent to question what the SRO was really for — mentoring or “about violence coming into the building.” Citing the “different messaging,” she said she was worried about racial profiling.
Another said that the push for an SRO was part of a “fear machine” that has consumed the country since September 11, 2001.
Two male graduates of CHS recounted an incident where one of the young men was “slammed down” by a cop in the cafeteria. “The minute you bring those cops back in those doors, those black kids are going to feel threatened,” said one man, who added, “I know Officer Mike. I’ve known him for over 20 years. I know most of the police officers in Maplewood, but at the end of the day we have other things to figure out.”
Later a parent asserted that “Sandy Hook was a rare event. We should focus on real risks,” including good education and attitudes about race. The parent said that the community should “treat schools as the community spaces that they are, kind of like libraries.” He also suggested getting “police on the beat, earn trust, then maybe walk into the school once in a while.” He also suggested, “Take the gun off the table. If you want police in schools, let’s get rid of the gun and then maybe we can improve trust.”
A number of speakers who spoke against SROs did, nonetheless, have positive words for the Maplewood and South Orange police departments, noting that they did not see the kind of police behavior in Maplewood and South Orange that they were seeing in other parts of the country.
“I’ve been profiled as a black man,” said one speaker. “None of it has ever happened in South Orange.” The man seemed to speak in favor of an SRO: “I have three daughters in the school system. I’m not just thinking about myself. I worry about their safety. We talk about being prepared for the lightning strike…. We do fire drills even though schools aren’t burning down every month.”
Another parent of three students (at Marshall, Jefferson and CHS), wanted to raise a point from the Town Hall held last last June after the weapons incidents: “I heard our former South Orange Police Chief [James Chelel] question this approach.”
Near the end of the meeting Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca signaled that commenters had been heard: “No decisions have been made.” When someone called out from the audience, “What if we don’t want it?,” DeLuca replied, “Then it won’t happen.”
“The reason we’re here is to hear what you have to say,” said DeLuca, “and the school board will discuss it and debate it. There may be other things we can do.”