Taking Steps to Make NJ Schools Safer
With school shootings becoming more frequent, New Jersey school districts could soon have another option to help keep students, teachers and support staff safe.
The Senate Law and Public Safety Committee has released a measure that would establish a new category of “Class Three” special law enforcement officers, under the Special Law Enforcement Officers Act.
Under the bill, Class Three special officers would be retired police officers younger than 65 years old, and they’d be authorized to provide security during normal school hours or when it’s occupied by students and teachers.
The legislation also stipulates these officers would respond to offenses or emergencies off school grounds while traveling to a school. In addition, they would be have the full powers similar to a regular police officer while providing security.
They would not, however, receive the same level of pay as a School Resource Officer - a career law enforcement officer with sworn authority, deployed in community-oriented policing, and assigned by the employing police department or agency to work in collaboration with schools. Also, they would not receive the health and pension benefits of a School Resource Officer either.
During testimony before the committee, Denville Police Chief Chris Wagner, president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, said from January to October of last year there were 52 school shootings in the U.S., with 30 people killed and 53 people injured. He told members of the committee the shootings occurred on 21 college campuses, 15 high schools, three middle schools, 10 elementary schools, two pre-schools and once on a school bus.
The chief said the Special Law Enforcement Officers Act is necessary.
“We will not be immune from these statistical events, but we can take action to minimize the injury and death, or even stop the event from happening altogether. While there may be unfortunately no antidote for stopping crime, we know that uniformed police officers definitely act as a deterrent to crime,” Wagner said.
He also said “placing a fully uniformed, equipped, armed and most importantly trained Class Three police officer in our schools will make our teachers, school staff, and our most precious citizens of our state, children safe.”
The chief said because dollars are so tight, many school districts across the state have made attempts at securing their schools with security guards, especially in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting.
“I applaud them for taking that action, however those security guards are not mandated to attend any regular training, they’re not permitted to utilize the level of force that a police officer may, and they’re not under the authority of the chief of police. In the event of an emergency they would not communicate directly with the police department,” he said.
Wagner added having this kind of Class Three officer in our schools “who’s under the authority of the Chief of Police, and trained and retrained and looped into our law enforcement function is a win-win situation, and it also makes tremendous fiscal sense as well.”
Frank Belluscio, deputy executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association said a prior study found tremendous support for School Resource Officers, but the one drawback is they receive a police officer’s salary and benefit, which makes it very difficult, in these financial times, for a school district to afford, even in partnership with a municipality.
He said the idea of having a Class Three officer can provide “a reasonable alternative for districts who want a law enforcement presence in their school – and they would report directly to the Chief of Police, which is an important component for many reasons, including insurance liability.”
Class Two officers, he explained, are auxiliary officers who can only work limited hours and they would not have the same training as Class Three officers .
Belluscio also said it’s up to individual school districts to decide what type of security is best for their particular schools.