Following a growing trend across the state, Monroe Township Board of Education members last week approved a policy to allow its in-house security team to carry firearms while on duty.
Having armed guards in the district’s schools was widely supported among officials and residents. But in recent weeks that support quickly started to erode after more opponents began to object to it at public meetings and board committee members tasked with vetting the plan raised numerous concerns that they believe were not fully addressed resulting in a request to delay adoption.
The 6-2 vote, with one abstention from Policy Committee Chairwoman Michele Arminio, on May 9 paves the way for the district’s qualified in-house security team to carry a firearm.
Business Administrator Michael Gorski said the district can now begin to “incrementally relieving,” the Police Department “as soon as the evaluation requirements of the policy are satisfied for retired police officers who are employed as security officers in the district.”
Trustee Frank Russo, who voted no to the plan, renewed concerns he raised at the previous meeting. Russo, a policy committee member, reiterated his request for a signed document to justify why the district administration wanted armed security guards and added that this method was creating a police department within the school system.
“What we are doing is building a police department in the schools and no one has that experience here to do that,” Russo said. “I don’t think you’ve [the administration] thoroughly vetted [it], in my opinion, because no one is willing to sign the document.
“Once we get the green light to go this route, I don’t think we’ll be able to turn back. We’ve asked the administration for justification for why they made the decision they made and we’ve yet to get that from them,” he said. “… I even wrote that document, letter of justification, which points out everything they’ve told us and they haven’t gotten back. That’s what’s holding it up.”
Russo’s claims were echoed by other trustees, like Dawn Quarino, who questioned if the administration was capable of leading this initiative.
Gorski refuted the claims, pointing out that the head of security, Peter Piro, is a former police sergeant and that this is not adding a police department, and that the administration has provided ample information. He added that this policy instead allows the district to re-arm its in-house security team that will report to the head of security, and its not starting a police department.
“Our rules come from the state, and we implement and follow those rules,” said Superintendent Michael Kozak. “We checked with the board attorney with signing the document. If we sign one … it could lead to legal entanglements because we didn’t sign previous documents. She did concur that on the agenda that when it says ‘recommended by the superintendent’ that’s putting it down.”
Kozak also said he would be willing to sign some form of justification paper during the meeting to satisfy requests, but no such document was provided during the discussion.
“Florida is certainly an emotional incident, but it was also a rude awakening for all of us here that this is something that can happen in any school and in any community,” said Steven Riback. “Personally, I’m not willing to jeopardize the safety and well-being of any children or any staff member in our schools while we’re deliberating, taking weeks and months to deliberate. I think we have to get these officers in the schools as soon as possible and we can certainly work out things after that.”
The differences in opinions raised by trustees and the administration confirmed an earlier point Arminio made about not being on the same page when it came to expectations for the new policy, which is why she felt more times was needed to discuss the measure.
“I think part of the ongoing deliberation is because there are many different expectations on what this policy is supposed to do and we haven’t again reached consensus,” Arminio said. “For example, is the policy merely a fire-arm carrying policy? Are the gun-carrying security guards expected to be a crisis or incident first responders? None of these questions have really been definitively answered. We’ve discussed it, but not fully addressed expectations.”
The administration said that it saw no problem with continuing to develop the security policy going forward given that things can change. The document, they said, is always going to be a work-in-progress, but that ultimately the parents wanted enhanced security for a just-in-case scenario.
Education leaders and public officials in Monroe and many other districts throughout New Jersey and the nation quickly began reviewing their security measures after a gunman killed 17 students and staff in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. The mass shooting rattled much of the country in part because of the images and videos shown on social media from students while the attack was happening, and that many district leaders saw Parkland as being similar to their own.
In taking immediate action, the Monroe Township Police Department agreed to provide off-duty police officers to temporary patrol the district’s schools until the Board of Education enacted its policy and is ready to handle that responsibility.
The approved policy requires that the armed security guard is a retired police officer in good standing and meets all necessary state statutes to carry a firearm. The individuals also must provide their own weapon that is either a 9mm, 40 caliber or 45 caliber semiautomatic that is in “excellent working order. The district also contracted with Raymond F. Hanbury, Ph.D., ABPP, to provide psychological evaluations of the guards “on an as needed basis.”