Armed guard policy faces some backlash, but gets initial OK by Monroe BOE

Christopher Lang, Correspondent, @topherlang2 | May 3, 2018 | MonroeNow

A policy that would allow armed guards to patrol the district’s schools faced some backlash last week during its introductory proposal before it was OK’d for a final hearing currently scheduled for May 9.

The committee charged with vetting the regulation called the proposal “inadequate” and that “it really wasn’t clear,” according to the chairwoman, Michele Arminio, at the April 25 Board of Education meeting and wanted more information from the administration explaining the justification for having armed guards in Monroe Township schools.

Developing a new policy to arm security guards quickly became a focus for the trustees and the administration after 17 students and staff were killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. Soon after the Parkland shooting, a town-hall style meeting was held to discuss school security with one of the main courses of action being to arm guards.

Since March, education leaders have worked to update the policy to allow armed guards and in the interim the township Police Department has provided off-duty officers to serve in that capacity. The school board policy committee has held several meetings since to discuss information it received, but has felt questions it felt needed answering have not been resolved.

Those concerns became public at the April meeting when Arminio and Frank Russo explained why the committee had some hesitation but also affirmed the committee’s support for having armed guards.

“This is a serious policy and the parents are taking it seriously, the community is taking it seriously, the Board of Education and administration are taking it seriously and the committee is as well,” Arminio said. “As you can imagine we understand the urgency of this policy … we want to get it right since it is really introducing deadly force into our schools.”

The pair outlined several issues they felt were important to address, such as knowing what was the information source for developing the policy and requiring new psychological evaluations for retired police officers who would carry a weapon, among others.

“I wasn’t happy to see what was given to us mainly because the first document we received described what took place at the meeting at the high school,” Russo said. “It doesn’t say who it was from and doesn’t address anything, so I found it to be totally inadequate. … If somebody can’t put their name on a document, I don’t feel confident in supporting it.”

Superintendent Michael Kozak said that the policy came from samples Strauss Esmay and New Jersey School Boards Association provided and were reviewed by the district’s legal team.

“The policy committee, rightfully so, is being careful,” Kozak said last week after the meeting. “This policy in particular is something that could be controversial regarding putting armed guards into the schools, which is why this has taken a bit longer.”

After several minutes of discussion the policy was approved for final adoption at the May 9 meeting with a majority vote. It was also understood that the committee would receive additional information potentially for its May 1 meeting and if more time is needed they would hold additional committee meetings before trustees next public session.

READ: Superintendent outlines why armed guards are coming to district schools

As it stands now, the policy would allow for retired police officers to carry a firearm while on campus or inside a school building. Those individuals would ultimately need approval from the board based on a recommendation from the superintendent. The armed guard candidate would have to meet all state laws to carry a weapon in addition to other regulations listed in the proposed policy. As for the weapon on campus, the individual could carry a 9mm, 40 caliber or 45 caliber semiautomatic that is in “excellent working order.”

The district still has to determine how much additional pay these new requirements would cost, but Kozak said that will be worked out with the union since the security team is represented by that organization.

Though having armed guards has generally received wide support among community members and public officials, one resident at last week’s meeting opposed the idea.

READ: Police will provide temporary armed security

“I think we made a mistake,” said Mike Costello. “We should not have guns sin the schools. We need to increase our security. We need to do many other things, but we do not need guns in the schools.”

Though Costello is one of the few people who have openly opposed having armed guards in district schools, Chrissy Skurbe, who has children in the system and serves on a local PTO, is one of the many whom supports the concept.

“You’ve got to understand that these are trained professionals,’ she said last week in an interview. “It’s never the gun that’s the problem, it’s the individual. And if we can have individuals in the building who could potentially stop somebody, I don’t think there is a danger. I would feel confident with any of our retired police officers who I know in our building right now carrying a weapon into the building.”

A delayed discussion

The first reading on the new policy was originally scheduled for March 27. But that meeting ended in a surprise when five trustees left after a closed session discussion about a new contract for Kozak.

Once those members left, the board, by law, was no longer able to complete the business on the agenda, which included the first reading on the policy and other matters such as approval for soliciting bids for a food service provider.

Had that meeting happened as planned, when trustees met April 25 they likely would have been in the position to adopt the new policy, instead of hold a first reading. Education officials confirmed that the March meeting issues have pushed back plans, but remain optimistic it will get adopted.

If significant changes are made to the proposal that result in the school board having to re-hold the first reading at the May 9 meeting, they can call for a special meeting later in the month to then adopt the policy.

The township, according to Business Administrator Alan Weinberg remains committed to providing security at the schools until the board is in the position to assume those responsibilities. Weinberg said that the $450,000 earmarked for security would run out by late June.

What would happen next if the board fails to adopt its policy by that timeframe is unclear.

In mid-April, Police Chief Michael Lloyd sent a letter to Kozak asking for an update on where the district stands with implementing its new security policy.

Referencing the town-hall style school security meeting in February, Lloyd wrote on April 17, “You assured the audience of residents and parents the BOE the policy to arm your school security personnel, who are retired police officers would be expeditiously considered by the Board of Education. … It is important for me to know when you will be arming the retired law enforcement officers on your security staff – so I can plan accordingly and provide relief to my staff.”

“I think everybody has to understand on both sides what exactly [the policy] says,” Skurbe said. “Our children are our most important possession that we have, we want to keep them safe at all costs. It’s a very scary world that we live in today.”