Members of Bloomfield Families for Sensible Safety made their presence known at the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, June 19, in effort to halt the controversial proposed placement of nine armed Class III officers at the entrances to the township’s elementary schools.
The recently-formed group used the open forum to express their opposition to the proposal – which would use $550k from the school’s budget – and pepper the BOE with concerns and questions.
Former BOE member Mike Heller was the first to present, calling on the BOE to properly inform the Bloomfield community about the existence and details of the proposal.
“The budgetary proposal of 550k is unclear,” Heller said. “If you have nine schools staffed at eight hours per day and $25 an hour for 180 instructional days, the personnel expenditure is approximately 329k, where is the other $220k being spent? The hiring of a retired police officer to direct the program who may be the spouse of a member of the administration? The public should be informed.”
According to BFFSS co-founder Noel Gatts, the BOE has not sent out an official letter notifying all parents and guardians in the district of the proposal for armed guards in the elementary schools.
“We feel strongly that they should send an official notice to all parents and guardians explaining the situation so that everyone can be informed,” she said noting that parents who cannot attend BOE meetings are unaware of the controversial situation.
Danielle Kepler took the stand and offered a slew of alternative safety options to armed guards including physical improvements to the building such as entryway redesigns with a second set of locked doors to restrict visitors to a waiting area, bullet proof glass and ballistic film, interior and exterior cameras, keyless locking mechanisms, panic buttons and two-way radios.
In addition, she brought the topic of mental health to light, asking for an increased focus on mental health counseling and early intervention with troubled youth as an alternative security measure to prevent active shooter events from occurring.
“Columbine, Virginia Tech, Parkland, Santa Fe all had armed guards… if the worst-case scenario were to happen and the armed guard is shot or does not engage with an active shooter, what other security measures are in place to protect students and staff?” Kepler asked. “How does a handgun stand up to a weapon of war? What physical security measures are not going to be implemented because we were spending 550k a year on an armed guard?”
A common sentiment ran throughout the meeting – people want to see the research that led the BOE to this decision.
Heather Dworak acknowledged that while everyone has the same goal to keep children safe in school, a plethora of community members remain unconvinced that the armed guards proposal is a result of data-driven research.
“What remains unanswered for me is how did the Board of Education arrived at the conclusion that hiring armed officers is the best way to improve security?” Dworak asked. She then cited the Southern Poverty Law Center which found that students in schools where School Resource Officers (SROs) are stationed are five times as likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct than students in schools without SROs.
“Please do not perpetuate the cycle of violent solutions to violent problems by spending so much money on armed officers in our schools, which is an ineffective security measure,” Dworak said in closing.
When the open forum concluded, Superintendent Sal Goncalves addressed the crowd by attempting to answer questions about the issue that arose from the May 24th BOE meeting.
“The safety of your children is paramount to all of us,” Goncalves began. “The question becomes, ‘how do we secure the vestibules at the elementary schools?’”
In response to the public’s repeated request for the research that led the BOE’s decision to approve the 550k budget for the armed guards proposal, Goncalves said that what they have seen in the literature is that the Class III officer is noted as a “best practice.”
“There’s no research out there for or against, it’s been identified as ‘best practice,’” he acknowledged.
Gatts was not impressed by Goncalves’ answer.
“The only research they provided was that it’s “best practice” and that just means it’s a recommendation from the New Jersey Department of Education, which I do know because I spoke to a gentleman there at length,” she said, “so I know it’s on a list of recommended best practices and not necessarily for every town, it’s town specific… so that was just a subpar answer.”
Goncalves addressed other concerns, explaining that the $550k budget allocation would have to be reapproved every year, which includes training and certifications for the officers, and would not cut funding from other programs.
He also clarified that the officers would not be limited to 20 hours a week and would be under the direction of the Bloomfield Police Department.
Goncalves was met with audible dissent when he responded to the questions of alternative security options.
“Currently we have three options,” he said. “We have an option of an SRO, there’s an option of unarmed security and there’s the option of the Christie legislation regarding Class III officers.”
Members of the audience were unhappy that Goncalves only provided options which included officers, dismissing the commonly said suggestions of physical improvements to the buildings in order to enhance security as an alternative to officers.
Goncalves noted there would continue to be communication between the community members and Board of Education in regards to this issue. Still, the meeting concluded on sour note with clear tension between the BOE and unsatisfied community members who felt their questions still remained unanswered.
“I’m disappointed in the answers,” Gatts said. “We acknowledge that everyone has the best intentions for our children, I really can’t emphasize that enough. This is not a blame game, but we just want to base our choices on facts and evidence and what’s best for our town.”