Plan for Armed Guards in Bloomfield Elementary Schools Causes Controversy

Charlene Peterson speaking at the May 24th Board of Education Meeting

A recently-formed group, Bloomfield Parents for Sensible Safety, came together after learning of the proposed  placement of nine armed guards (Class III police officers) at the entrances to the township’s elementary schools, to be funded by a $550k line in the school budget.

The group has created a petition urging the BOE to explore other security methods rather than placing armed guards in the elementary schools. The petition has garnered over 240 signatures to date.

Several residents spoke during public comment at the May 24th Board of Education meeting regarding the issue.

They had quite a wait to speak their piece, as public comment was only opened after a two-hour training presentation by Charlene Peterson of the New Jersey School Boards Association. Peterson took the Board through an ethics presentation, as well as a training session on how to use a new online tool to evaluate the Superintendent and a summary of the strategic planning process for the year.

The Board agreed to utilize the new, more intuitive tool for the upcoming evaluation of Superintendent Sal Goncalves’ performance, after he expressed willingness for them to use the new tool rather than the previous version.

During public comment, Mike Heller spoke first, emphasizing the importance of Board members holding themselves to a high standard and thanked the Superintendent for agreeing to being evaluated with the new online tool. He then provided a list of subjects to be addressed in future planning, including redistricting, class sizes, communications, alumni networks to track students, soliciting community input, and more.

Nahum Prasarn said he was disturbed after recently moving to the section of town served by the Oak View Elementary School, to learn that the Board intends to bring in armed guards to the school his children will be attending.

“I am a public middle school teacher in Montclair,” he said. “They are putting security measures in, not guards.” He recommended focusing on student health, identifying at-risk children, and anti-bullying programs.

Bob Barrett stated he grew up in upstate New York, where there is a strong gun culture. He said even hunters with scopes miss deer in the woods. “The idea that a resource officer could take out anyone with a gun is kind of fantasy,” he said. “The cost is probably not money well spent.”

He recommended non-lethal methods to disrupt a shooting, such as flash bang grenades to disorient the shooter.

Satenik Margaryan spoke in support of focusing on desegregation of the elementary schools, and asked that the BOE keep residents involved in the Strategic Planning process.

Armine Gallagher expressed dismay that so many parents were unaware of the plans for armed guards. “There are other alternatives before going to this extreme, and I feel those have not been shared and expressed,” she said.

Former BOE president Mary Shaughnessy said she knew of no data that would support spending half a million dollars on placing armed guards in the schools. She also pointed out that the Police Department seems to already be advertising to hire officers for the positions that would become available, questioning who gave the go-ahead to proceed.

“I do hope there will be more public discussion. If you do go ahead, show us the data,” she said.

Not everyone who spoke opposed the idea of placing armed guards in the elementary schools. Mike Salinas, husband of Board member Jessica Salinas, spoke in support of the proposal.

“I’m the parent of six children; when I hear $500k, I have peace of mind. I see a crossing guard, I have peace of mind. If I see an authority figure, I get peace of mind. Even if you say studies haven’t shown it, that peace of mind is worth more than any study,” he said.

Board of Education Attorney Dotoli stated the board began the process for crisis intervention, referral services and security back in February. The process culminated in an event held in March that gave the Board assurances of research behind the plans. He stated a public hearing was held on April 24, 2018, including a PowerPoint presentation with research presented on Slide 17. “This was not a decision of last week,” he said.

He explained the process included meeting with the Police Department, but said the Board had not been aware the municipality was going to send anything out regarding the positions.

BOE President Jill Fischman said that, although she couldn’t reveal all the details, the district has spent over $800k for security measures to date. Superintendent Sal Goncalves concurred, and said he was putting together a report for the BOE and public to review.

He said security measures have been ongoing since 2014, and reviews are made each year and new measures incorporated. However, he said, “Access when people come into the elementary schools has been a problem for a long time.” In 2014 the New Jersey School Boards Association made recommendations for armed officers in the schools.

A new class of “Class III” officers was created by state legislation and became effective in 2017. These officers would be retired police officers who are under 65 and fit a list of requirements, including completing the special training course for school resoure officers, psychological testing and more, he explained.

The High School and Middle School currently have armed School Resource Officers for security. However, this option is more expensive than hiring the Class III officers.

Goncalves said the district is already focusing on many other ways to improve security, including mental health, drills, evacuation plans, etc. He said they couldn’t do man locks at the doors of the elementary schools, so placing someone at the door to receive visitors is the best solution.

He said, “It’s a complicated problem. We don’t want to turn schools into prisons. We’re listening to everyone, reading emails….We’re looking at it carefully. I will have more specifics for you in the coming weeks.”

The issue has caused plenty of controversy on the local Facebook page, Citizens of Bloomfield. Many commenters feel hiring armed guards is a logical solution in the face of the increasing number of school shootings. Examples of comments include:

“I think it’s a wonderful idea and about time. We need to keep all our children and staff safe!!! For those of you that are against armed police officers I say wake up!!!!!”

“Thankful the kids are being protected and the BOE isn’t playing politics with our kids (sic) lives.”

“Another incident yesterday in Indiana. It’s the only way to slow down this craziness in our schools. Very sad!”

“Don’t malls have armed security? Colleges definitely do. For those who don’t want their children “exposed” to guns in school…What about when they reach college age? What about when you take them to the mall?”

Via email, Melissa DeFino of the Bloomfield Parents for Sensible Safety expanded on the reasons the parents group opposes armed guards.

“Bloomfield Families for Sensible Safety opposes bringing a firearm into our elementary schools and preschool. We are not against unarmed guards or other security measures. We applaud the Bloomfield Police Department on helping to make our school district the 26th safest in the state, and we would welcome retired police officers serving as unarmed guards. The non-negotiable point for us is the the answer to this problem is not more guns.

There is no evidence that armed guards prevent or deter school shootings….The research that is available has focused solely on armed guards in secondary schools. The findings there are that armed guards may reduce school crime, but also that their presence makes students actually feel less safe. They feel policed. This is especially true for students of color.

We also know that the very presence of a weapon makes accidents and violence more likely to occur. In a study by the FBI of bank robberies, it was found that the presence of an armed guard in a bank made fatalities more likely than in robberies where no armed guard was present. In trying to make our children safer, this decision would actually do the opposite. It would place them at a higher risk.”

She also pointed out that, although Director of Elementary Education Joseph Fleres had told them that 20 other districts were considering adding armed guards, “that only accounts for 3% of the 590 school districts in the state.” She applauded other security measures that Fleres said were already in place.

Noel Gatts, a founder of the parents group, also weighed in on the issue via email.

“Each school has a different need depending on their gaps in security. We as a group agree that monies should be spent bridging these gaps through proven life saving measures without introducing a deadly weapon into the daily experience of the our elementary and preschool children. 

Some examples/options of security measures proven to reduce access and save lives: one entrance/one exit (we understand this to mean only monitored entrances and exits), blinds and/or special locks for each classroom, locked bins outside of the school doors to collect items dropped off during the day, panic buttons, numbered classrooms (for emergency response), surveillance systems and on all doors, multi action response to threats. On a more long term level, implementing mental health support, crisis counselors, and measures supporting kindness and inclusion.”

Gatts pointed out that there are armed ful-time Police Officers (SROs) at the Middle and High Schools, but there are also unarmed security personnel, which is something her group is open to if it helps make sure that all visitors are approved and go through the proper check-in at the main entrances.

She also expressed concern that the presence of the armed officer would actually become a target for someone.

“I spoke to Jeff Gale of the NJDOE Office of Security & Preparedness to gain insight on recommendations for armed guards…When I questioned why a guard need be armed, he responded that police are targets. He then referenced an incident where police officers were shot while sitting and eating lunch. I responded with heartache at this truth, and my thought that it might be a good reason not to have targets at our schools, and he responded that usually it’s someone who knows the officer. He also mentioned that we may face a threat from within the school, namely students that an armed guard could confront. I shudder to think that an armed adult might approach an elementary aged child who by some circumstance might bring a firearm into school.”

The next Board of Education meeting is on Tuesday, June 5, 2018 at the Media Center at Bloomfield High School. On the school district website, it states that no action will be taken on hiring Class III officers at the meeting and that the Bloomfield Police Department will be present to answer questions for both board members as well as for members of the public during the June 5 public board meeting beginning at 7:30 PM.

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