By: Michael Miller & Natasha Kanitkar & Ananya Sathish
Due to a 5-3 majority vote from West Windsor-Plainsboro’s Board of Education, Class III officers will be added to schools in the district, including High School North. The new Class III officers will function similarly to most police and will be stationed at all ten WW-P schools throughout the day. Class III officers are retired police officers who still retain full police powers, including a police uniform and police-issued firearms. “There will be one officer at each school during the day with a second officer at each of the high schools during the evening for a total of 12 regular shifts,” Anthony Fleres, the Head of the Board of Education, said. The decision has sparked a larger debate about utilizing armed officers in order to fight the growing threat of school shootings and other misconduct within the school community.
Robert Garofalo, Chief of the West Windsor Police Department, Guy Armour, Chief of the Plainsboro Police Department, and David Aderhold, Superintendent of the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district, made a joint statement on the district webpage this July in support of the new policy. Their comments aim to assuage public concerns. They address the issue of police biases against minorities, stating that officers go through School Resource Officer Training (SRO) which includes “bias and cultural sensitivity training.” In addition, the trio claims that opponents of the armed guards initiative are spreading information––implicating police bias and school-to-prison pipelines––that is often taken out of context and misinterpreted by the community. “While we are all entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts,” wrote Aderhold, Armour, and Garofalo in their memo.
Although the decision came as a surprise to many residents, Flores explains that the district has been on board with implementing Class III officers since his election in 2006. “The biggest obstacle was that, prior to 2016, the police departments would have had to assign one of their regular patrol officers to this duty, thus taking them off their normal assignments,” said Flores. The duty of Class III officers was an issue for the relatively small police staffs in both Plainsboro and West Windsor. Everything changed in November 2016, however, when Governor Chris Christie signed a law creating a new class of special law enforcement officers (SLEO). Since SLEO Class III officers’ pension and health benefits are already paid through their retirement plans, schools do not have to pay those costs, making it an affordable option for many districts. “The cost of having one officer in each school, including salaries, training, and equipment, comes to about 0.5% of the annual school budget,” said Fleres.
Aderhold, Armour, and Garofalo contend in their memo that officers are not just guards, but also an additional resource for students. The three hope that students and officers will intermingle regularly, creating a strong sense of community. “Police officers provide a sense of comfort and safety to staff and students and will work to ensure that our schools remain institutions of learning, enjoyment, exploration, and discovery,” wrote Aderhold, Armour, and Garofalo in their public memo.
However some people still believe that armed guards are a bad idea. Alumnae Bharati Ganesh, Bushra Hasan, and Sarmishta Govindhan reached out to local residents via social media websites, like Facebook, in an effort to impede the confirmation vote. The most widely held concern was that the inclusion of these officers would disproportionately target minority students and students with disabilities. Furthermore, through a poll conducted on Blue Hole, a Facebook group with over 500 students from High School North, 61% of students felt uncomfortable with armed police officers at North. In a separate survey, a student commented that the presence of armed guards would actually evoke more fear knowing that there would be guns within close range of students at all times.
One of the precautionary measures that was implemented before the vote to implement Class III officers was the Memorandum of Agreement. This regulation states that school officials can only include Class III officers in situations that would normally involve police.
Although the school district has tried to take measures to better protect students, the debate over whether armed guards in schools place a band aid over the issue of mass shootings or effectively protect the safety of the student body still continues.