The issue is becoming a divisive one in the community.
Superintendent David Aderhold was on hand at the meeting to give details on the Class III officers program, fielding questions from both council members and residents.
In order for the district’s proposal to move forward, West Windsor, along with Plainsboro, will need to adopt a shared services agreement.
The Class III officers would likely be retired police officers who would be paid on an hourly basis through the shared services agreement with both townships.
The officers, who would carry a gun, would be responsible for community policing, educating staff about security best practices and in some cases, acting as an informal counselor to student.
Though neither town will pay for the program with municipal funds, the agreement lays groundwork for how the money will be allocated from each town’s education budget.
Each town would invoice the district every two weeks during the school year, and the board of education would have an agenda item to process the checks at every meeting.
Plainsboro Township Committee was expected to discuss the issue—including a presentation by Aderhold—at it’s July 11 meeting.
At the start of the West Windsor Council meeting on June 26, Mayor Hemant Marathe told the council that they have no say in the decision on whether to place armed officers in schools, nor in their hiring or training, which will be overseen by the police department. The council’s responsibility is limited to reviewing the shared services agreement, he said.
“If you have doubts about whether the program should be approved or not, that’s a question for the school board. If you ask that to the council, it’s the wrong tree you’re barking at,” Marathe said.
However, this didn’t deter several residents from debating the proposal during the period for public comment.
‘Fear should not drive policy decisions.’
West Windsor resident Sanjev Rajaram, who has spent 11 years as a student in the district, said that armed officers would add to the sense of overall safety among students.
Other residents were more skeptical, given the limited research on Class III officers and similar roles. One resident suggested there might be alternative solutions with more rigorous backing.
“This is not based on sound evidence, but good faith,” said Shannia Lin, critiquing the state task force report that the board of education initially cited. “I went back to the original report, and they failed to provide the data to support their claims … the CRS [Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan public research arm] says there is not enough high quality research to definitively say this is a good idea.”
Though research on Class III officers specifically is limited in scope (the program was created by a 2016 law signed by then-Governor Chris Christie), there have been a handful of similar studies.
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 anecdotal evidence of the program’s value. Earlier this year, a school resource officer in Illinois chased off a potential shooter from the building, eventually wounding him to end the threat.
Several residents argued that the measure was overkill for the level of risk—the Washington Post recently calculated that for students, there is a 1 in 614 million chance they will die from a school shooting.
“Fear should not drive policy decisions,” resident Daniel Weiss said. “Hiring armed officers in our schools is unnecessary.”
But Aderhold cited recent threats of gun violence in the community involving local students of middle school and high school age.
“We’re not far removed from such incidents,” Aderhold said, mentioning several incidents in nearby communities. For example, in May, a New Egypt teenager was arrested for threatening to shoot during high school graduation. Closer to home, two Community Middle School students this January taunted classmates on the bus and in the cafeteria with a weapon that looked like a gun.
In February, Aderhold said he worked with law enforcement over a weekend to find and confiscate what they believed to be a 9 millimeter gun. The student first showed off the weapon on social media.
Both town police departments helped the school district recover the weapon on Sunday, “prior to any incident in school,” Aderhold said.
During the discussion, Aderhold also clarified that the district did not expect to have all officers hired and trained by September.
“The likelihood of officers by September is zero, we know that as a school district,” Aderhold said. “But is it possible that we start seeing some officers on board, absolutely, but it has to be the right officers for the community as determined by the process.”
The shared service agreement with the townships calls for an oversight committee in the hiring process, which Aderhold said will be “working hand in hand with both municipal governments and police departments.”