Maplewood, New Jersey: The possibility of a Maplewood Police Department school resource officer at Columbia High School brought dozens of community members to a forum on Monday night.
The sworn officer would be assigned to the school everyday, and would have an office inside the building.
South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll and Maplewood Police Chief Robert Cimino both spoke in favor of the proposal at the beginning of the meeting, as did former Maplewood Police Sgt. Michael Morrison, who served as a school resource officer at Columbia High School from 2001 to 2005. According to Chief Cimino, the role was eliminated in 2008 due to budget cuts. The South Orange Maplewood School District currently contracts with U.S. Security Associates for security officers at Columbia High School, Maplewood Middle School, and South Orange Middle School.
"They saw him as a friend; they didn't see him as a police officer", Chief Kroll said of Sgt. Morrison.
Morrison then stated then when he worked at Columbia, he would often speak to students in classes like driver's education. "Those relationships that I built in the high school are still in place", Sgt. Morrison told attendees.
Several students, alumni, and parents then spoke about the proposal, most of whom were against it.
"Why now?", one student asked. Superintendent Dr. John Ramos responded that a state task force about safety published recommendations, one of which was to hire school resource officers.
"We can't guide our lives by one extreme", said a parent.
Several other community members spoke out about alleged incidents of racism by police officers and school security officers at the high school, and one alumnus stated that he was assaulted by a police officer at the high school in 2003, and was then expelled from school.
"It traumatized me", he told the crowd. "I have a lot of respect for the cops, but do we really need them in the high school? No we don't", he said. The former student later graduated from Kean University and received a degree from Seton Hall University earlier in the day on Monday.
"I always support student voice; student voices are important," Dr. Ramos told Essex County Place following the meeting. "I know lots of times the items at board meetings can be boring and of no consequence but just their presence makes a difference because they are who we serve", he added.
Monday's meeting came after a meeting on Thursday night where many students and Columbia High School teacher Thomas Whitaker spoke out about recent racial incidents in the school district. During Thursday's meeting, Whitaker stated that due to budget cuts, teachers had been planning to organize.
"However, according to district leadership, they were advised to 'discourage their people from organizing or they would feel the wrath of the superintendent'", Whitaker claimed.
"My reference to staff coming to board meetings was more about those instances where people were being self serving, and that's been the history in the district in some cases and I think its contrary to the culture that a school district should have", said Dr. Ramos in response, adding that "I had no problem with Mr. Whitaker coming to the meeting last week and in fact I'm gratified that people came forward to talk about the issue".
Dr. Ramos said that he is planning on starting a Superintendent's roundtable for students to speak about school issues.
South Orange Village President Sheena Collum, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca, Columbia High School Principal Elizabeth Aaron, South Orange Maplewood Board of Education members, students, teachers, union leaders, and actor John Amos were among the other attendees at Monday's meeting.
However, some felt that more people from the community should have been in attendance. Nina Kambili, the student representative to the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education, said that it was a "sham of a forum", noting that the event was barely advertised to students.
"This room should be filled", another student stated near the end of the meeting.
Send story ideas, letters to the editor, and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow us on Twitter - @PlaceNJ
Like us on Facebook - Essex County Place