PATERSON, NJ – In the aftermath of the Newton tragedy, Patersonians who attended a community forum Wednesday night expressed a variety of opinions on whether the city’s schools needed more armed security officers.
Some asserted that the district should allow the 11 retired police officers on its security force to resume carrying guns, a practice discontinued two weeks before the killings at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut. “Why are they not carrying their weapons?’’ asked Ken Abuassab of the Arab American Civic Ornagization. “They need to carry their weapons to protect” students and staff members, he said.
Others forcefully opposed any change that would increase the number of guns in Paterson’s schools. “I completely disagree with that,’’ said Angel Sanchez, parent of a student at PANTHER Academy. “I don’t feel we need to bring guns into the schools.’’ Sanchez said he asked his son what he thought about increasing the number of armed security staff members in his school. “His eyes opened up with fear,’’ Sanchez said.
At present, there are 12 off-duty police officers who carry weapons while working in the schools.
In response to Newton, Paterson education officials are in the process of re-examining and revising their school security system and Wednesday’s forum was part of that process. The security evaluation goes way beyond the question of guns. It includes an effort to fix the classroom door locks in all schools, an analysis of the use of surveillance cameras and a host of other possible initiatives.
“We are not rushing into this,’’ deputy superintendent Eileen Shafer told the audience at the forum. “We’re not trying to react to what happened. We’re not going to have that knee-jerk reaction.’’
In a district with more than 29,000 students, less than 75 people attended the forum at School 26, and about a third of them were district employees. Some of the 17 audience members who spoke during the event expressed frustration that more parents did not come to the meeting.
At times, officials described the impact of district’s financial limitations on security decisions, such as in deciding not to get electronic locks activated by ID cards for school lockers. One parent objected to that “There is no price for the safety of our children,’’’ said Sadia Gonzalez. “Elected officials like to bring up the budget. I think we should invest whatever we need on our children’s safety.’’
In many instances, parents and community members focused on security issues at individual schools.
Janet Caldero, president of the parents group at PANTHER Academy, said she was worried about the recent opening of a program for parolees near the school as well as about the building’s wide open courtyard that outsiders sometimes enter. Moreover, she urged the district to allow the retired police officer assigned to the school to resume carrying his gun.
Zatiti Moody, principal of the Eastside education complex, suggested the district give staff members ID cards with electronic chips to unlock doors, instead of old-fashioned keys. Moody also said the schools’ main entrances ought to have a time-delay opening mechanism to help security staff screen the people entering the buildings.
Rashanda Clark, a parent of a Napier school student, said the district ought to assign a security officer to the outside of the building
School board member Corey Teague warned the district that the trailers used for classroom space at School 1 posed a security risk because intruders would have easy access to them.
Some school districts in the tri-state region began hiring armed security staff in the wake of the massacre in Newton. “It’s tragic that Connecticut has shocked all of us because there’s death around the corner in Paterson each and every day,’’ said Bilal Hakeem, a parent and city anti-violence activist.
At one time, Paterson schools had 22 armed off-duty police officers stationed in them, said the district’s security director, James Smith, a retired city police captain. That number was reduced to 12 several years ago through budget cuts, he said. As a result, the district increased the number of retired cops on its security force.
For more than 15 years, those retired officers carried guns while working in the schools, Smith said. “There never was an incident,’’ he said, arguing the district would be better off if they were armed once again.
Amod Field, principal of the Kennedy school complex, also urged that the retired officers be allowed to carry guns. Field cited a recent incident at Eastside in which shots were fired outside the school and the security officer, retired Paterson Police Lt. Ronald Humprey, went outside to investigate without the protection of a gun. Moreover, Field argued that youths have more respect for a gun. “I would like to have those officers armed to protect the children and lives of Paterson,’’ Field said.
During the meeting, Shafer emphasized that the district was only considering allowing the retired police officers to resume carrying guns and not the regular guards.
Officials did not say exactly when they would complete their revised security plan, but state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans said he may schedule another community forum on the issue.
On the day of Paterson’s community forum, state education officials in Trenton announced they would begin conducting surprise security inspections at schools around New Jersey.