BERKELEY HEIGHTS — A police officer began rotating through the Berkeley Heights School District’s six schools on Monday, Oct. 2, following the local Board of Education’s approval of the pilot project at its Sept. 14 meeting.
The district has used school resource officers, or SROs, for almost 20 years. The new program will allow the officer to patrol the six schools; the officer also may be used at events on school property to provide additional security.
The program will take place for one year, after which it will be assessed, Superintendent Judith Rattner said.
At the Sept. 14 BOE meeting, Berkeley Heights Police Chief John DiPasquale told the board and attendees that the class-three police officer will not be utilized by the police department anywhere else, and the officer’s enforcement power will restricted to school property.
During a previous school board meeting in August, DiPasquale said new state policy allows armed, retired police officers to serve in the schools with enforcement powers only on school premises.
DiPasquale said officers would receive the same training as regular township police but would not receive the same benefits, as previously reported by other publications.
“This was a best practice recommendation that came out of the 2015 NJ School Security Task Force report and was formalized in legislation last year,” Reinstein told LocalSource in an email Sept. 30.
“The police department and the district administrators felt that this would help to augment our current safety and security measures such as secure vestibules, SRO, visitor policy, security system, and card readers.”
In August 2013, the New Jersey School Security Task Force — which represents the state Department of Education, Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, and the Schools Development Authority, as well as four state-level education associations — was created to investigate and suggest solutions to improve school security.
After studying public schools in New Jersey and Connecticut, and visiting police departments, the task force released 42 recommendations in a 59-page report approved by Gov. Chris Christie in July 2015.
Some of the panel’s recommendations included establishing a School Safety Specialist Academy, improving response times to emergencies, improving school-based emergency communications capabilities with financial and staffing considerations, deploying trained school resource officers in each school building and requiring identification cards for staff and students to be displayed in school.
A state Department of Education press release noted that some of the recommendations would require changes to existing state laws and regulations, while others could be implemented administratively at the state or local levels.
According to Reinstein, some benefits to the new program include “help to provide an additional first responder to our schools, a visible deterrent, and also afford students the opportunity to interact with a representative of the police department.”
During the meeting, Rattner asked DiPasquale about specifics regarding the role of the class-three officer.
“When I think of enforcement, I think if there is a trespasser that comes onto the school grounds. In the past, if there is no one else here, the administration would have to deal with the trespasser,” Rattner said.
DiPasquale told Rattner that the officer would be able to take action on that type of trespasser situation.
In addition to some inquiries by the administration, resident Toiya Facey expressed concerned about the presence of the officer.
“Is there training in specific regards when working with adolescents? Because it is very different. How do you de-escalate a situation with an adolescent? There has been lots of studies done, so I’m genuinely concerned,” Facey said.
DiPasquale responded that the class-three officer will be trained as an SRO and the advertisement for the new officer included the requirement that they must have previously served as a juvenile officer or SRO.
“We certainly don’t want to create a pipeline for kids who go off course. We have well-established parameters for how we handle disciplinary matters,” Dipasquale said.