HILLSIDE, NJ — The Board of Education at a special Feb. 7 meeting approved adding two armed borough police officers, who are trained school resource officers, to the district’s schools and also to disarm three security guards.
The motion to assign officers Bryan Arrington and Shakeema Wilson, effective Feb. 8 through June 30, passed with a 7-0 vote with one abstention. Vice President Kimberly Cook, an employee of the Hillside Police Department, abstained. Board member Shalanda Thomas was absent from the meeting.
SROs provide security and assist in crime prevention in the schools. The training they receive provides tools for them to build positive relationships with students and staff. One officer will be stationed at the high school and the other will rotate between the district’s other five schools.
The district will pay $37,500 per officer through the end of the school year.The move to add police officers came after the Jan. 24 regular board meeting, when the board removed two resolutions to hire two additional armed security guards after it was made public that the individuals designated had not received proper SRO training.
Before his suspension, Superintendent Antoine Gayles said the three guards who already had been working in the district also hadn’t received SRO training or psychological exams before being brought into the schools. They had gone through background checks and fingerprinting.
“We don’t expect a problem in Hillside but we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re caught unprepared,” he said.
Gayles said the three guards hadn’t received the SRO training due to class scheduling, and that they were scheduled for the next round of training during the summer.
“I understand that there are scheduling issues, but I don’t believe that armed guards should have been placed in our schools without training on how to deal with our kids,” Angela Lawler, president of the Hillside Education Association teachers union, told Gayles at the meeting.
Councilman George Cook objected to the guards being armed, allegedly without police Chief Vincent Ricciardi reviewing their files and knowing the schools to which they are assigned.
“It’s unsettling that we have armed guards that the police chief doesn’t know about,” he said at the Jan. 24 meeting. “I think this is a bad idea and that it is dangerous to our children.”
The removal of the item from the agenda to hire the two additional security guards came after a two-hour executive session at the January meeting.
“We have an obligation to the community, our students and parents to look into situations that involve our kids’ safety,” BOE member Kimberly Cook said in a phone interview on Feb. 1. “Their safety comes first.”
Former board member Kisha Chiles-Bass questioned whether the officers would be pulled away from the schools in the case of an emergency in town.
“They will not be pulled during the hours that we need them at the school,” Acting Superintendent Debra Sheard said. “They will not be on patrol or anything because their assignment now is about school.”
However, because it is not written in the contract that the officers will not be pulled from the school, BOE member Angela Menza said she was concerned about the agreement.
“I don’t see this written anywhere in this contract that they won’t be pulled out by the chief of police,” she said.
Kimberly Cook assured the board members at the meeting that the officers will now be assigned to the district, so they will not be pulled from the schools unless there is an incident involving students that has occured off of school property.
“When officers are assigned to a certain task, you’re not allowed to use them on anything else,” she said.
BOE member Calvin Lofton noted that many events take place off school property, and asked that if there was an altercation between students across the street from one of the schools, if the officers would intercede.
“They will be involved in anything that involves the students,” Kimberly Cook said. “If there’s a house fire two blocks down, then that goes to regular patrol.”
“These officers are specifically designated to deal with the students. If it is anything that deals with the students, and if they hear that there is going to be a brawl a block away, it is part of their job to intercede,” BOE attorney Allan Roth said.
Kimberly Cook also stated that the officers will still have their walkie-talkies to reach police headquarters if they need assistance with an issue or if a situation occurs outside of the schools that requires additional personnel.
Sheard said the end goal is for the district to have five additional special law enforcement officers who will be stationed at each school to work with the current SRO officers.
“We’re looking at the officers as just another member of our staff at the high school and in the district,” she added.