Our kids have begun seeing a daily police presence at school.
Superintendent David Aderhold emailed parents around the holidays to report that the first of the Class III SLEO (Special Law Enforcement Officer) police officers were hired; the eventual goal is to have them, full-time, in every school.
This introduction of armed officers is a big deal, introducing both guns and law enforcement into the daily, educational lives of our kids.
Unfortunately, we did not arrive at this “school hardening” policy after close conversation with the school community in the months following Parkland.
Too many busy parents had no idea that a program such as this was being seriously considered.
It was briefly mentioned in a letter from the superintendent last April, buried among 28 other possible ideas for school safety. By contrast, there were targeted emails and 11 dedicated presentations organized for the recent referendum. The proposal was rushed towards approval by the board of education and the townships in the summer. The final approval, at a West Windsor Township Council meeting, was made over hours of objections from a crowded room of residents who highlighted two issues (among others).
The first was that teachers and students were never explicitly included in the deliberations, even though they would experience the impact of security changes the most.
Second, educators and mental health professionals emphasized that there is no good data to show that an increased police presence can prevent school shootings or make schools safer.
Aptly summarized by a resident present: “This is a community saying, ‘Slow down…we need more time and careful conversation.’”
Across our country, more of our schools have rushed to introduce police officers. Like our own, most have put these programs into place without requiring evidence of effectiveness or the necessary transparency and oversight protocols.
As a result, educational dollars are being diverted from teachers, infrastructure and programs without any demonstrable increases in safety. In some cases, the police presence has been shown to cause harm to some students.
In the past five years, our school’s security budget has increased almost eight-fold, from under $200,000 to over $1.5 million between the Eyes on the Door and SLEO programs.
Do our kids feel safer? Are our schools safer? Can a well-intentioned police officer address a child’s needs better than a trained mental health professional? What educational priorities and mental health issues are not being met because of our spending on “hardening”?
The lingering questions in my mind from the depressing way in which this SLEO program was rolled out: Why did our leaders feel that poorly attended PTA and board of education meetings met the bar for enough community discussion when it comes to a major security policy? Why do the mayor and township council feel that posting on closed Facebook groups, like West Windsor Peeps, is an adequate replacement for inclusive community dialogue? Why do our elected officials treat the expertise of our educated residents as a liability rather than an asset? Does our board of education spend our money wisely?