Guns in school are not OK, not even for school security officers. That is what a group of parents told the Lawrence Township Public Schools Board of Education last week.
The issue for parents is the school resource officer (SRO) who is assigned to Lawrence High School and the two Class III special officers who are assigned to Lawrence Middle School and Lawrence Intermediate School. All three officers carry a gun.
The SRO is a full-time Lawrence Township police officer and the two Class III special officers, a newly created position, are retired police officers.
Parents had already voiced their objections to armed police officers in the schools at the board’s Sept. 12 meeting, and they repeated those concerns at the board’s Sept. 26 meeting.
The parents’ ire was triggered by a shared services agreement between the school district and the township that was slated for action at the Sept. 26 board meeting. After board members listened to the parents, the item was pulled from the agenda for additional review.
Parents expressed concern with what they termed “vague language” in the agreement, which outlines the duties and responsibilities of the SRO and the Class III special officers.
Martha Friend questioned the language in the shared services agreement and said it was “incredibly worrisome.” She said she would like the board to take the notion of armed guards in the schools off the table.
Some parents object to having the SRO and the Class III special officers carrying guns in school because of concerns the officers would act as disciplinarians and might harm the students.
The SRO is more likely to use force because police officers are trained to use force, said Lisa Kestler. Administrators are more likely to turn to the SRO and the Class III special officers to discipline students, which would lead to more students being handcuffed, tased and beaten, she said.
“I am not OK with having armed guards and police in school,” Katie Mulligan said. “I am not OK with how it is being set up.” She said she was concerned about the impact on minority students if they see police officers in school.
Some parents said they supported having police officers in the schools.
“I appreciate you trying to come up with solutions. There is not a perfect answer to everything, but I do think this is a positive thing,” Kerry Kemo said. She said she wants her children and their friends to have a positive relationship with the police.
In response to the parents’ comments, board President Kevin Van Hise said the decision to bring back the SRO, a position that existed for several years at Lawrence High School until it was eliminated for budget reasons, and hiring the Class III special officers was the result of much discussion.
“For anybody who accuses the board of a knee-jerk reaction or thinks it was not a deliberative thought, I said it last time and I will say it again, this was the culmination of a nine-month process,” Van Hise said.
The decision to put armed police officers in the schools grew out of community discussions in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting, Van Hise said. A group of residents organized a meeting to discuss school security and school district officials asked to be included, he said.
The state Legislature created the Class III special law enforcement officer position as a means to “augment” existing security measures in schools, Van Hise said. The Class III officers are retired police officers who have undergone extensive training, he said.
“Those Class III officers are not the palace guard who stand at the door. They are a face. They go above and beyond,” Van Hise said.
He reeled off the names of several Lawrence Township police officers who served as school resource officers before the position was eliminated.
Board member Michele Bowes said the board does not take these matters lightly.
“When you stand there and say you don’t think we debate this and talk about this and try to get the best for our community, then you really don’t know this school board,” Bowes said.
Board member Jonathan Dauber also supported the move to bring back the SRO and to hire the Class III officers. He is a former Lawrence High School principal and worked for the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office before making a career change.
Dauber told the parents he was “extremely happy” to be able to bring back the SRO and said he was confident it was the right thing to do. He said the SRO never acted inappropriately and added that he, as the principal, was always in charge.
Superintendent of Schools Ross Kasun emphasized that the point in hiring the three security employees is to keep students and staff members safe. The officers do not act as teachers or disciplinarians, and they do not conduct investigations, he said.
The visibility of the SRO and the Class III officers serves as a “target-hardening measure” that would dissuade a would-be attacker from entering the schools, Kasun said.