BRIDGEWATER, NJ - A trio of Bridgewater Township police officers will be assigned to the Bridgewater-Raritan school system in the near future, after the council approved a measure to hire three Class III officers.
According to the New Jersey School Boards Association, the option for these officers was made available as of June 1 by state law that creates a type of law enforcement personnel that is trained specifically to provide security in and around schools. They are called Class Three Special Law Enforcement Officers, and they are hired only to provide security at schools when they are in session.
These officers are retired so they can be hired at lower costs, but will operate under the authority of the local police department and have full police powers.
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The Bridgewater Township Council voted unanimously Oct.1 to modify the number of police officers to allow the employment of three Class III special law enforcement officers. It then authorized execution of a police service agreement for school safety for those officers with the Bridgewater-Raritan Board of Education, with all costs of said officers to be paid by the school board.
The board of education had previously approved a memorandum of agreement to partner with the township to hire these three Class III officers to serve in the district during the academic year. The issue had been bandied about by the council in recent weeks, and also underwent some discussion at its first October meeting before the matter was resolved.
Councilman Howard Norgalis raised concerns at the council’s Sept. 27 meeting regarding reimbursement, and wanted it made clear that any litigation brought against the Class III officers while on school duty would result in the township being compensated by the school board.
Council president Christine Henderson Rose said later that she believed the insurance issues had been answered, while Norgalis said changes had been made in the language of the resolution about the school board reimbursing the township, including any cost of litigation against the officers while they were in the line of duty. It was also mentioned that the school board had no insurance at present to cover such litigation, and would have to purchase it.
But, he said, It had also been reported earlier that day that the district could not take on the additional resolution language.
Norgalis continued that he was all for school safety, but pointed out that the Class III officers would only be working in the schools, and that the school board should thus take on the insurance costs to protect the town, especially if more such officers were to be added to the schools in the years to come.
Norgalis moved to have the resolution passed as it had been re-written. He added that the ball would then be in the school board’s court if it rejected the measure, especially since the schools had originally asked the township for the officers. Township Attorney William Savo said the town had a broad police policy, as opposed to the schools.
Councilman Filipe Pedroso said taxpayers will still be paying, whether the officers are funded by the council or the board. He added that money would be saved if the township oversaw the matter, as it had more people on its insurance policy and would be cheaper.
Pedroso added that the school board tax would be passed on to the taxpayers, while Norgalis envisioned more such officers being situated at more local school buildings in the future.
Councilman Allen Kurdyla reiterated that the real concern was about the cost of litigation and liability if something went wrong while the officers were in the schools and on duty. Council vice president Matthew Moench offered that if something did happen, everyone would be sued, while Norgalis worried if the township had to face a $500,000 settlement.
Moench asked about a timeframe, and township administrator James Naples said the Class III officer agreement would have to be re-upped for every new school year. Kurdyla said the town’s police chief will be supervising the officers, who will be considered township employees, and concurred that the town would get sued if anything happened.
Savo explained there could be negotiations. He said there was initial indemnification, for the town’s actions and the school board’s actions, but that negotiations could take place if costs increased in the insurance premiums.
Moench said he was willing to approve the resolution, even with the potential liability, as the township did have insurance. He said he didn’t see having the schools take all the responsibility, as the town was overseeing employees of its own in the Class III officers.
“It’s incumbent on us to move forward quickly, to protect our children,” said Moench, who then moved to approve the resolution without the added language.
Pedroso said he would support the resolution, as the township wouldn’t escape being involved in legal action because there were township employees involved. He added that Norgalis had made a legitimate point, especially if more officers were added, but he commended the school board for being proactive, and also stated that the school district’s children had to be protected.
Norgalis ultimately relented, saying he had been swayed by his colleagues’ arguments, and the resolution passed by a 5-0 count.