In light of recent gun violence across the U.S., the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district is looking to hire a new security force this fall. These officers would dress a bit differently than the current staff of security aides: khakis, polo shirt, a police badge and a gun.
The new roles seem the most controversial among a long list of security improvements planned for the districts’ ten schools. To some parents, the idea of an armed officer roaming the hallways, especially at the younger elementary schools, is worrisome. But for others, the alternative of not having an armed officer onsite is even more so.
According to superintendent David Aderhold, the position officially known as Class III police officer, is “fundamentally different” than the role of the existing five security aides at the local high schools. These officers, often retired from the police force, would be responsible for community policing, educating staff about best security practices and in some cases, acting as an informal counselor to students.
“While the officer serves to support both threat assessment and threat deterrence, their responsibilities are so much greater,” said Aderhold.
The plan was first discussed at the school board meeting on May 8. A week later at the board’s next meeting, West Windsor resident and former board candidate Veronica Mehno presented an online petition with about 70 signatures in protest. Her children attend Dutch Neck elementary school.
“I don’t think that putting Class III officers with a gun in a school will prevent a shooting,” Mehno said. She believes tightened security at school entrances and technological solutions like reinforced windows, locks and surveillance cameras should be implemented before escalating the solution to include arms. She also cited studies linking police presence in schools with increased rates of juvenile delinquency and later, incarceration through what’s called the “prison pipeline.”
Another reason for pushback has been the proposal’s cost — which the petition estimates to be upwards of $500,000 each year.
“This money could very well be used instead to hire more counselors for the schools and fund educational programs that can be more useful and productive, or be returned to taxpayers,” the petition reads. According to Mehno, the board of education did not comment on the petition. In an email statement to The News, Aderhold also said he had no comment.
But for some parents, the costs and risks associated with increased police presence in schools are worth the extra security.
“I understand that other parents are concerned. They’re concerned that the weapon will be drawn for other reasons other than a school shooting … but I trust our entire police department with my children’s lives and that’s not an easy feat by any means to earn that kind of trust,” said Plainsboro resident Amy Diaz, who is a mother of four WW-P graduates, two sons who currently attend Community Middle School. “The most compelling reason is out children’s lives. While the risk is minimal here in West Windsor, our children still need to be protected for the ‘what if’ [scenario].”
Aderhold said the salary, hours and hiring process are still undetermined, though the positions are slated to be filled by September. There will be some police presence during the day at all public schools, with likely double the coverage at both high schools.
“Based upon discussions between school administration and the police leadership, it is our collective recommendation to have a police presence during the academic day at all schools in the district,” Aderhold said.
School shootings are near impossible to predict and difficult to prevent; most tactics from stricter gun control law to arming classrooms with rocks are met with skepticism across the political spectrum.
And as noted in the Sante Fe shooting, a tragedy that unfolded in Texas despite the presence of an armed officer (who was critically wounded in the fight), Class III officers might not be foolproof in preventing student deaths. However, research indicates they could be helpful.
A 2018 report on a school officer program across five Canadian high schools showed a decrease in property damage, injuries from student fights, drug overdoses and 911 calls. The two-year study also found that students and staff felt an enhanced sense of safety in their day-to-day.
There is also recent anecdotal evidence of the program’s value. Earlier this month, a school resource officer in Illinois chased off a potential shooter from the building, eventually wounding him to end the threat.
The WW-P school district would be joining the growing minority of schools who have hired school officers. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, 42 percent of public schools had an officer working at least once a week or more.
Following the debrief and feedback sessions at this month’s board meetings, the next steps will be discussing the program’s logistics with West Windsor and Plainsboro town officials — details such as hours, pay and hiring. A formal resolution will need to be signed by both towns and the school board for the proposal to move forward.
Both town police departments are in favor of having armed officers patrol local schools.
Plainsboro police chief Guy Armour gave a brief statement that he “fully supports” the initiative. It would protect students and create “more opportunities for community policing with the citizens that we serve,” he said.
For West Windsor chief Robert Garafalo, the benefits of having an armed officer onsite in the event of a school shooting, however unlikely, are worth the cost.
“Let’s face it, a well-trained police officer assigned to the school has enormous potential to save lives and neutralize a shooter,” he said. “So, if a Class III officer in the school has the potential to save just one life, just one — what cost do you put on that?”
The likelihood of a school shooting is still low, about 1 in 614,000,000 according to the Washington Post. But most shootings are over in minutes, “long before patrol officers can arrive on scene,” said Garafalo.
And students, especially at the middle and high schools, may already be used to seeing cops in the hallways, according to Garafalo.
“Some complain that they don’t want armed officers in the school, but we are there already. Our officers are constantly in the school for events and to just walk through, and socialize with the kids. Our officers teach DARE and a host of other courses and seminars. Our kids are very comfortable with seeing officers in the hallways,” Garafalo said.
According to Aparajita Rana, the senior class president at High School South, students would feel more comfortable with an armed officer if they were a familiar face, someone who had worked in the school before — whether it be teaching DARE or working as a security aide.
“If armed guards were present, I have heard students say they would be the most comfortable knowing the guards. And it potentially being someone who has been part of the security team for a while.”
Though student opinion remains split on how to stop this national threat, there’s been a loud and united call for action.
“Students argue on both sides with the idea that armed guards and thereby more guns, increases the problem. Others argue in order to combat and protect students, guns are important. I don’t think I could say the entire student body is one side or the other, but the population is being more vocal with the common goal of just overall safety,” Rana said.