(File photo.)

The West Windsor-Plainsboro Board of Education is considering the hiring of armed former police officers to help bolster security in district schools.

The move, which is being opposed by some residents, was discussed at the board’s May 8 meeting, and is being considered for implementation in the fall.

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 on site is even more concerning.

Superintendent David Aderhold said the position—Class III police officer—is “fundamentally different” than the role of the existing five security aides who currently work in the schools.

The officers would most likely be retired police officers, and be paid on an hourly basis by the townships and the school district through a shared services agreement. Since they are already retired, the officers would not receive pensions or healthcare benefits.

The Class III officers, would be responsible for community policing, educating staff about security best practices and in some cases, acting as an informal counselor to students.

These officers would dress in khakis, polo shirt and have a police badge and a gun.
“While the officer serves to support both threat assessment and threat deterrence, their responsibilities are so much greater,” said Aderhold.

At the board meeting on May 15, West Windsor resident and community activist Veronica Mehno presented an online petition with about 70 signatures in protest of the plan. 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, adding that 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 guns.

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.

Mehno said the board of education did not comment on the petition. In an email statement to The News, Aderhold also said he had no comment on the petition.

But for some parents, the costs and risks associated with increased police presence in schools are worth the extra security.

“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 and has two sons who currently attend Community Middle School. “The most compelling reason is our 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.

If the plan is implimented, the WW-P school district would be joining a growing number 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 the May 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 says 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 on site 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?”

Garafalo said 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.”

And students, especially at the middle and high schools, may already be used to seeing cops in the hallways, Garafalo said.

“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,” he said. “Our officers teach DARE and a host of other courses and seminars. Our kids are very comfortable with seeing officers in the hallways.”

Aparajita Rana, the senior class president at High School South, said 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,” she said.

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,” Rana said. “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.”