By ERIN ROLL
Montclair students and community groups have called for the Board of Education and the Police Department to rethink the practice of stationing resource officers in the schools.
The “school resource officer” was born in the wake of school shootings in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, after which officers more commonly began being stationed in schools.
However, some current and former students say the presence of police does not make them feel safe, and results in students of color being disproportionately targeted for punishment and legal action.
Instead, students want improved access to counseling and mental health services, as one of several demands submitted to the district this summer.
At a July 19 town hall Zoom meeting on policing, Montclair Beyond Policing presenter Maya Jenkins said the removal of resource officers from schools would reduce the criminalization of students of color. She, and the other presenters from Montclair Beyond Policing also called on the district to provide more restorative justice and counseling services: a need that many students in the district have called for.
In a letter submitted to Montclair Local after the event, MHS student Analisa Faulkner Valiente said that by reinvesting money spent on school resource officers into mental health, students could experience increased well-being and camaraderie.
“This is not a perfect or quick solution, but it is better than putting Black students at risk every day for the sake of a poor defense system that may never come into use,” Faulkner Valiente wrote.
In Montclair, the BOE approves the employment of school resource officers, school security officers and/or law enforcement officers “in situations in which special risks are involved,” according to district policy.
Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said the district employs one resource officer at the high school. The district paid $132,591 for the 2019-2020 school year, and anticipates paying $140,000 for 2020-2021.
“Our community’s values along with the safety and welfare of our students are important. It would be inappropriate for me to comment substantively without the collaboration and input from our students, parents, local law enforcement and the Board of Education,” Ponds said.
Police Chief Todd Conforti said that although recent events throughout the nation have caused some to question the necessity of various police programs, he strongly supports the continuance of the department’s SRO [School Resource Officer] program, which has been in existence for two decades.
“Though the program is thought to be a response to incidents such as Columbine and Sandy Hook, it is much more than that,” Conforti said. “The SRO program has produced a long bond between many students and the officers assigned to the school throughout the years. While the primary responsibility of the SRO is to maintain the safety and security of those on campus, they are often relied upon to mentor and be a role model for the students.”
Conforti continued, “By building a sense of trust and understanding with Montclair’s youth, future relations between the police and the community will be enhanced as the students become adults. And the school officer serves as a liaison, which allows the district and the police to have direct communications to keep both better informed.”
Abraham Dickerson, the founder of Montclair Citizens for Equality, which has asked for body cameras, citizen review boards and other measures to be instituted by the police, said most research doesn’t support having officers in schools.
Dickerson said the research indicates that mass Columbine-type shootings are rare, and are more frequent at public gatherings such as sporting events. The research suggests that having a school resource officer present did not necessarily reduce the risk of a school shooting, he added.
Policing and community relations is “a really complex issue, when you look at it nationally,” said Jessica Henry, a professor of justice studies at Montclair State University. Ideally, she said, a school resource officer should be a positive presence, and act as a mentor to students.
Henry said some may see an officer’s presence as making it feel more like a prison, or that they are being seen not as students but as prospective criminals.
New Jersey, unlike many other states, requires at least 40 hours of training for school resource officers, Henry said. “That’s a big deal, because you are dealing with adolescents,” she said.
A report from the Georgetown Law Center in 2018 found that educators were often asking school resource officers to enforce discipline. These situations can escalate, Dickerson said.
Retired Police Chief Tom Russo disagreed that police officers should be removed from schools.
“Maintaining a semblance of public safety and order for the communities they serve is challenging in today’s society,” Russo said.
If the schools continue to have school resource officers, Dickerson said, a strong emphasis should be placed on restorative justice and cultural competency training, which students have also suggested for teachers. He said that schools should have their own citizens review board to oversee school resource officers, with students being allowed to voice input.