Public forum held on question of armed guards in schools

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — A public forum discussing the Bloomfield Board of Education’s proposal to provide each elementary school vestibule with an armed guard was held at Bloomfield High School on Wednesday, Aug. 29. The meeting was moderated by Michael Kaelber, a former director of legal services for the NJ School Board Association. Caitlin Lundquist, an attorney for the Busch Law Group, also addressed the issue. About 50 people attended the forum in the media center.

The meeting was prompted by an outcry from a group of parents who felt ignored in the decision-making process for the proposal. Armed guards came to public attention in April when the school board budget was approved with $550,000 earmarked for them. In response, the parental group calling itself Bloomfield Families of Sensible Safety was quickly formed.

Lundquist said two options were available regarding school safety: increase security or keep the status quo. She cited four classifications of guards: school resource officers, or SROs; Class III special law enforcement officers; retired police officers; and private security. All types of officers, with board approval, are allowed to carry firearms. SROs and Class III officers are required to have specialized training while retired police officers and private security guards do not.

Questions from the audience were answered during the presentation. One was how much did the current SROs cost the district. The high school and middle school each have one. Vicky Guo, the school district business administrator, said the district and township each pay about $192,000 annually for the guards.

District attorney, Nick Dotoli said a decision on the proposal would not be made before or at the Sept. 11 board meeting.
“What we’re discussing is a very expensive level of security,” he said, adding that the amount of money requires taxpayer input.
A second part of the armed guard discussion, with seven constituent groups, was scheduled for the following day. These groups included principals, police, the teachers’ union, and school secretaries, whose responsibilities include the critical “buzzing-in” of visitors into the school. Some people at the forum were critical that they were not invited to this meeting.

The forum broke into five groups to summarize concerns and suggestions. Each group had a spokesperson.
After a time, Kaelber opened the floor to them. One individual wanted to know why the issue of added security came down to a greater use of force.

“We look at the risk, but not the cause,” this person said.
Bullet-proof glass, more exterior cameras and panic buttons to the police department were suggested. Someone wanted to know why additional security personnel would have to report to the police. Other suggestions included having greeters in school vestibules, threat assessments of the schools and improvement to school culture.

“If you look at the history of shooters,” one person said, “it’s someone who hasn’t connected to the community.”
Another person said that security was bigger than just school buildings and more residents had to become involved with the issue. Additional guidance counselors and the monitoring of Chromebooks was also suggested as was the updating of security drills. It was mentioned that the district had three crisis counselors.

In an email, a representative for Bloomfield Families for Safe Schools, Noel Gatts, said she was grateful there has been further consideration of hiring armed guards, but there were other priorities that would affect security.

“The environment of our township and schools clearly calls for intermediate security measures that better address what is lacking,” she said. “This includes environmental and structural upgrades of buildings, threat assessment teams, better communication with emergency services and increased licensed crisis counselors for our schools. Historical experience and data support that these measures, along with stringent gun laws, are the ideal way to prevent tragedies. Armed officers have proven to be ineffective.”
She said Bloomfield Families for Sensible Safety will remain vigilant and heavily involved.