Eatontown superintendent requests financial help to place officers in schools

Eric Sucar
A budding tree during an sunny afternoon in Eatontown on 23.

Scott McCue, the superintendent of schools in the Eatontown Public Schools, is asking borough officials to help fund the hiring of armed police officers for the  schools.

During a meeting of the Eatontown Borough Council on April 10, Police Chief William P. Lucia and McCue advocated for the hiring of two Class III special law enforcement officers (SLEO) beginning in September.

During his appearance before the council, McCue said, “no one should question the safety of Eatontown’s schools,” but he said the hiring of Class III officers is necessary “just in case” an external crisis occurs.

A Class III officer is a retired law enforcement officer, under 65, who previously served as a fully trained, full-time police officer in New Jersey, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

The schools in the Eatontown, which educate about 970 students, are the Meadowbrook School, the Margaret L. Vetter Elementary School, the Woodmere Elementary School and Memorial Middle School.

McCue and Lucia said the two police officers would rotate among the schools. While they said hiring four Class III officers would be ideal, they acknowledged that the cost to hire four SLEOs may not be feasible at this time.

“In today’s day and age, unlike the education business was when I started 20 years ago, incidences of school violence like the (violence) we see on television were not as prevalent … If someone who really has an intent to do harm comes into a school and they have a weapon … unfortunately, the protocol we (currently have in place) is not going to stop that person,” McCue said.

Lucia said the Class III officers are “specific just for security.” He said those officers would not “get involved in the daily discipline of the kids.”

Borough Administrator Cherron Rountree asked Lucia to explain the difference between a Class III SLEO and other types of police officers who may be stationed in schools.

Some schools have a school resource officer, Lucia said, adding that the SRO may be called on to discipline students in certain instances. He said a Class III officer’s duty would only be to provide security for students and staff members.

“I do know this program (hiring Class III officers) is very basic. All the cameras and (secure) vestibules in the world (cannot prevent) someone from shooting their way into a school,” Lucia said. “The only way you have a prayer (in that situation) is if there is a good guy inside who can shoot.”

Rountree said that in January, the governing body introduced an ordinance that would, if adopted, create the position of Class III officers in the Eatontown Police Department. She said the officers must be hired through the police department and not by the Board of Education.

“It is very important to the council that this is a transparent process,” Rountree said. “If this (process) moves forward, additional security would be placed in schools and people would potentially have concerns.”

If the ordinance is adopted, Rountree said, a shared service agreement between the school board and the governing body would need to approved. She said funding for the Class III officers could come from the school district, the borough or both bodies.

Lucia continued to advocate for the hiring of Class III officers.

“I know people will find this hard to believe, but not everyone likes police officers,” Lucia said. “Now, I have the ability to have a Class III officer (in a school) interacting with children in a positive way. (Students) will be able to humanize the (person) in the uniform.”

Councilman Al Baginsky, who expressed apprehension about hiring two officers for four schools, asked McCue and Lucia what could happen if one officer became ill and could not perform their duties on a particular day.

Lucia responded, saying, “We can do this any way the council is comfortable,” and said the council needs to consider how four new positions would be funded and included in the 2019 budget.

The Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District in western Monmouth County worked with the Manalapan Police Department to hire Class III officers for the 2018-19 school year. The Class III officers were paid $20 per hour. The district’s Board of Education recently decided not to use Class III officers for the 2019-20 school year because the hourly rate was expected to increase to about $30.

The conversation about Class III officers prompted Councilwoman Tanya Rivera to ask those in attendance to consider what she described as “implicit bias” that could occur from placing law enforcement officers in public schools.

She prefaced her remarks by saying, “I don’t doubt our school district’s commitment to equity.”

Referencing data from a 2016-17 ProPublica report, Rivera said there were 32 out-of-school suspensions in Eatontown’s public schools that year. She said 56% of the suspended pupils were African-American, 19% of the suspended pupils were Latino, leaving 25% of the suspended pupils as non-African-American and non-Latino.

“These statistics are common around the country. One of the primary arguments against Class III officers is that their presence in schools contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline,” Rivera said.

McCue, who said the issue of implicit bias is being examined, said, “I’m very aware of the trends in Eatontown. I don’t really want to take away the focus of the conversation tonight … but as you know, we live in a danger-driven society.”

Tara Micciulla, the school district’s director of elementary and secondary education, said her daughter, who is in the seventh grade, feels safer when a police officer is present at Memorial Middle School.

In an interview after the meeting, Micciulla said the police officer who oversees the Law Enforcement Against Drugs program at the middle school makes her daughter and the other students feel safe and secure.

“As a parent and an administrator in the district, knowing there is a police officer in school makes me feel calmer because of that extra level of protection,” Micciulla said. “Knock on wood, we should never have to use that (officer).