Adding cops with guns to Bridgewater, NJ schools reveals big divide
BRIDGEWATER — A Somerset County school district is adding armed police officers just days ahead of graduation, but that decision, and whether to have them back this fall, is brewing controversy among local officials.
Bridgewater Mayor Matthew Moench announced Monday that a police officer will be posted to each school in the township but only through the end of this school year, which ends on Thursday, June 23. It's a response to more visitors and events due to graduations, according to the mayor's office.
“This is an important safety initiative for our children and the schools they attend. School security is a complex issue, and a long-term solution will require unity and collaboration throughout our community,” Moench said.
Funding for these officers in the short term will come from the township, the mayor's office said.
Bridgewater Deputy Administrator Wells Winegar told New Jersey 101.5 that conversations about permanently adding armed cops starting next fall have been "cordial." However, Winegar said the Republican mayor and Superintendent Robert Beers have different visions.
Beers told New Jersey 101.5 that while he supports having additional security in schools, he only found out Monday morning at 7 a.m. about the mayor's decision to place cops at schools this week. Beers said he was "not included in the decision making or communications process" and that no threats had been made.
"Over the past year, the Bridgewater Raritan Regional School district has evaluated practices and enhanced security coverage via the hiring of additional security personnel," Beers said. "We will continue to enhance and evaluate our school security operations for the 2021/22 school year and beyond with the goal of ensuring the safety and security of every person within our district."
The superintendent, who joined the district last August, added that there have been multiple meetings on school security between township and school officials. But the discussions were supposed to remain confidential and sharing details with the media could place the school community at risk, according to Beers.
Steven Singer, president of the Bridgewater-Raritan school board, told New Jersey 101.5 that Beers has been "devoted" to increasing security in the district.
Singer highlighted a public presentation at last week's school board meeting in which Beers said the district intends to hire two school resource officers and up to three Class 3 officers for next year. The board also approved hiring four retired law enforcement officers, according to Singer.
"The safety and security of our students and staff is of the utmost importance and Superintendent Beers, with the support of the members of the Board of Education, has taken decisive action to enhance security throughout the district," Singer said.
Republicans in the state Senate have called for adding armed security as a way to prevent mass shootings in schools. The proposal is a direct response to the shooting in Uvalde, Texas late last month that left 19 students and 2 teachers dead, along with 17 wounded.
State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, introduced a package of bills following the Uvalde massacre. Among them was S2784, which would stop a school district from prohibiting a security officer from carrying a firearm in schools as long as the officer is authorized under state law to carry a weapon.
O'Scanlon said it was time “to have at least 1 person in each of these facilities who can defend our children if there is a threat.”
Two large districts in Monmouth County have recently approved adding retired law enforcement officers to their schools.
With a unanimous vote from the Middletown Board of Education, Republican Mayor Tony Perry successfully pushed for armed security at each of the district's 16 schools. Then last week, Howell moved to more than double its number of Class III Special Law Enforcement Officers to have 17 guards covering 12 schools.
But a group of social justice organizations has voiced opposition to increasing police presence in schools. The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, the ACLU of New Jersey, and the Education Law Center said more police would be especially harmful to immigrants, students of color, and students with disabilities.
"Increased police presence in schools does only one thing," said Joe Johnson, Policy Counsel at the ACLU, "Subject children and families of Color to multiple traumas and violence, whether by individual actors or institutions plagued with systemic racism."
Includes previous reporting from David Matthau and Eric Scott.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story should have identified the mayor of Middletown as Tony Perry.