to the majority members of the Westfield Board of Education who voted to
approve the SRO program. The outcome of
the SRO vote was no doubt a real nail biter for all of you. Also, I applaud your collective profile in
courage moment. It is not every school
board that is willing to stand up and publicly state that Governor Christie is
wrong in his opposition to the SRO position in New Jersey schools. Since Mr. Mattessich had no problem publicly
insulting those individuals who expressed opposition to the Board’s SRO plan
will he now choose to insult Governor Christie - - wait - - he already has. Now that the Governor has restated his
opposition to the SRO concept specifically citing Westfield, Mayor Skibitsky finds
himself directly opposing the Governor. As Mayor, he has ultimate administrative control over the operations of
the police department. Chief Wayman
could not agree to or enter into an agreement with the School Board regarding
the SRO without the approval of the Town Administrator and ultimately the
Mayor. It is ironic that Westfield is
one of the first municipal governments to defy the Governor and to inform
Governor Christie that he is incorrect on this issue.
Given the fact that the Governor has now restated his public opposition to the SRO concept, the very real question facing the Mayor is this, is he actually in favor of this program? That question can also be directed to the Town Council.
Not being a group that rests on its laurels, the majority Board members have immediately moved right along to the time honored practice of vilifying the minority Board members and calling for their investigation on ethics violations. We all hear stories about sore losers, but sore winners?
It certainly appears that the majority members are utilizing a novel definition of what constitutes an unethical practice. I, for one, fail to see how it was unethical for a Board member to publicly request that interested parties attend the school board meeting. Given the fact that the actions of the Board’s majority can have serious repercussions to the entire town including increased liability exposure and decreased property values, Ms. Ormsby Cary’s action was a public service. I also do not quite understand why the majority would object to the larger than usual turnout. Isn’t that a good thing? After all Mark Friedman very smugly stated previously that he found himself having to “force-feed” information to the public.
Under the majority members relaxed definition of what constitutes an ethical violation, I can think of three members of the majority who would face sanctions under their own standards. One member of the majority went so far as making an unsolicited attempt to contact me for the stated purpose of coming to my home to discuss the SRO matter privately. The majority really should be careful on what they wish for. An investigation into their actions may prove the validity of Mark Twain’s quote relative to school boards.
What was interesting during the Board meeting were some of the comments from the majority rationalizing their vote in favor of the SRO position. Lacking the professional credentials of the Governor and the other professionals who came out against the SRO position, they reached into their imaginations and offered the following: Brendan Galligan had fond memories of how the previous SRO helped a friend of his with some unspecified problem. There could have been any number of other factors that contributed to helping his friend. It is unlikely that being a student at the time he would have been privy to all the details. Also, one unspecified example more than five years ago is hardly enough information to base a decision of such importance on.
Mark Friedman would like everyone to believe that he was undecided up until it was time to vote. I am not sure what is worse not forming a preliminary opinion based on the previous expert commentary and public opposition or basing a yes vote on the “overwhelming” information that was brought up in support of the SRO position that evening. Previously Ms. Beigler stated that her vote in favor was based on her position as a teacher in the Secaucus school system. Secaucus certainly is not equivalent or even similar to the Westfield school system. As an elementary teacher she would be unaware of any firsthand issues with the SROs in Secaucus High School. Ms. Beigler also stated that the SRO primary job would be to investigate crimes committed by Westfield High School students. Under her plan shared by the majority, the only counseling the students would receive from the SRO would start with, “You have the right to remain silent.” In addition; Mr. Mattessich’s attempt to link SRO opposition to opposition of the Second Amendment or the dislike of guns in general was an act of desperation and quite a reach.
What I did not hear from any member of the majority was that they were moved into voting yes by independent research that they had conducted. Nor did they address the significant public opposition to the SRO program. The majority did not state that they listened to and why they subsequently discounted the various professional opinions voiced in opposition of the SRO program. They also chose to discount the Governor’s professional advice. What was that key irrefutable piece of information that the majority relied on as the foundation of their vote? It would seem that they would have proudly provided it during the meetings. It certainly is a sad day when the parents undertake more due diligence on an issue than the Board.
At no time either prior to or after the vote, has the majority indicated that they had in place or had even contemplated having a formal governance document covering the SRO position. According to the National Assessment of School Resource Officers commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and the U.S. Department of Justice not having such a document in place prior to instituting an SRO program would be akin to professional misconduct. Any informal agreement between the Board and the police department is not sufficient. If such a governance document exits, it should have been made available to the public prior to any vote or debate on the SRO issue.
The Board majority has failed to address the risk of the SRO inappropriately applying skills and attitudes needed to work primarily with adults on the street to students in a school setting. If the SRO arrests a student for some very minor school infraction that student could lose out on scholarships or being admitted to the college of their choice. Then there is the possibility of false arrest or a student who has a grudge against another student providing the SRO with unsubstantiated rumors. Based on such gratuitous information the SRO can start an investigation, search a locker or make inquiries with other law enforcement agencies concerning the student who is his “target” in the investigation.
Do we really want the SRO to have this amount of subjectivity and discretion? Quite frankly would the average parent trust the SRO with this enormous discretion? Particularly if it was applied against their child. If there is a choice of arresting or targeting a student with connections or one without, what do you think will happen? Not what should happen, but what do you think will happen? Some may call those statements irresponsible. However, when you are talking about a student’s future they are valid issues to address. But as of now the Board has not provided a formal governance document addressing these issues.
Also the SRO position is hardly a position for career advancement. It has been well documented how some SROs inflate their arrest numbers by going off school grounds or being creative in what constitutes a crime or infraction. For example, on the first day of school one SRO gave out numerous tickets to students who took off their bike helmets prior to fully stopping and parking their bikes. Prior to purchasing a home the average buyer researches not only the school system but also the town in general. If they read or hear about the High School needing an SRO specifically to address crime within the school they will form a negative view of that town. Conversely, when they research a town and see that town has a high number of arrests and other police action, they will look at another town.
Another danger of the SRO program is the issue of negligent discharge of their firearm. One SRO officer was so bored after weeks of no “action, he was fooling around with his gun while patrolling a school hallway and it went off. Other SROs have left their guns in restrooms, offices or have had negligent discharges. The FBI, Secret Service and DEA have all had negligent discharges, one even in the White House. Their firearms training outperforms anything Westfield could think of instituting and yet they have had numerous negligent discharges of firearms. In another case an FBI agent accidently killed another agent during an arrest. So if a parent is concerned about the Westfield SRO patrolling the High School, they have a valid concern, not a concern to be mocked or distorted as Mr. Mattessich has done.
One last thought. More than one SRO and police department now want to place heavy weapons (rifles, shotguns) in strategic places throughout a school. Their rationale is that should a situation arise no matter where the SRO may be, he will have access to a heavy weapon. Overreacting? Not according to one SRO advocate who stated: “Actually, the request by the police is not unusual. It is also not inconsistent with reasonable tactical planning.” Without a governance document the Westfield Police Chief just may want to do something like that. After all if other police departments think it is a good idea should Westfield be left behind?
Yes the Board of Education has approved the SRO position. However, they are not the only entity involved in this decision. The Town of Westfield needs to be aboard fully as a partner. It is time the Mayor and Council members make their opinions public. There is still time to act responsibly in this matter. After all what is the hurry?