There will be new faces at many New Jersey schools when the 2017-2018 school year starts. But unlike the students attending new schools for the first time, these Class III Special Law Enforcement Officers (SLEOs) will have already completed their classwork.
Their School Resource Officer (SRO) training, that is.
With the official start of a new academic year on July 1, 2017, New Jersey schools looking to add to, or implement, a law enforcement presence on their campuses have a new option: Schools may now hire retired law enforcement officers who meet specific conditions. And thanks at least in part to the actions of the New Jersey Association of School Resource Officers (NJASRO), these officers will go into their new posts with the same training taken by sworn SROs.
Requiring that training played a key role in Gov. Chris Christie’s eventually signing Bill S86 on Nov. 30, 2016; prompted by NJASRO, he had conditionally vetoed the measure in September 2016 pending restoration of the training requirement. The law permits the hiring of a third special classification of officers in New Jersey (Class 1 officers have no law enforcement powers and are used in some jurisdictions to write parking tickets, while Class 2 officers, hired to expand shore town police departments during beach season, have law enforcement authority only when performing their seasonal duties.) The new Class III SLEOs can be hired to work as SROs under the following terms:
And most importantly to NJASRO – according to Executive Director Capt. Patrick Kissane of the Ft. Lee Police Department – certified as having completed the association’s SRO training.
“New Jersey was one of the first states to make training mandatory for SROs, in 2006, and we had to put up a fight to keep that training requirement for the Class III SLEOs, but we knew it was necessary,” Kissane says. In 2006, the Police Training Act (N.J.S.A. 52:17B-66 et seq.) required the Police Training Commission, in consultation with the New Jersey Attorney General, to develop a 40-hour training course for school resource officers. A course developed by NJASRO was then implemented in police academies throughout the state, and before SROs can begin working in New Jersey schools, they must complete this comprehensive training. The 40-hour course, currently in the process of being updated, covers areas including the roles and responsibilities of an SRO, such as instructional time, threat and risk assessment, and working with school personnel; legal issues, such as search and seizure, outreach programs, interviews and processing; teaching methodologies, such as lesson plan development, classroom management and how children learn; mentoring; working with administrators; bullying prevention; and a new section on community college policing and how it differs from policing in public schools.
“This is an opportunity to get more cops in schools, which we want, but we want it to be with the right model. I want a cop in every school, but at the same time, I want less policing. I want our SROs to be community police officers, mentors, coaches, teachers,” Kissane says.
“I hope this new program piques a lot of interest. I hope there will be officers all over the country saying ‘Did you see what they’re doing in Jersey? They’re recognizing the value of using retired cops in schools,’ ” Kissane says, adding although other states may already allow schools to hire retired officers, no other state has a formalized program like the one in New Jersey.
The majority of just-retired officers range from their mid-40s to early 50s, he says, and they have years of valuable experience. However, these officers need to learn all the ways that school policing differs from what they’ve done in the field as SWAT team members, detectives and narcotics officers. Most schools are safe places, Kissane explains, and the NJASRO training focuses on the need to put the right officers in the right schools so that they can help shut down the “school-to-prison pipeline” by not criminalizing petty offenses and keeping the students from becoming adult offenders.
“This isn’t a security guard post. We want them to go back to the roots of walking the beat and we want them to be a member of the school community,” Kissane says.
That position agrees with the one taken by the New Jersey Safe Schools Task Force in its April 2013 report, which states serving as an SRO is essentially a type of community policing where the officer’s beat happens to be in a school. Emphasizing positive interactions with students and staff allows them to understand that SROs are much more than armed security guards, and the resulting trust can help make students comfortable sharing information that might help stop bullying or violent behavior before it escalates.
“The new Class III SLEOs will be playing a valuable role. It will make students and staff feel good to know the new SRO has 25 years of law enforcement experience, and we hope they become the ‘Andy Griffith’ for the school community, the good cop that’s a helpful resource,” Kissane says.