CALDWELL, NJ - Approximately 50 residents attended the Caldwell-West Caldwell Board of Education meeting on Monday seeking information about a proposal to hire a full-time School Resource Officer (SRO).
Since 2009, Det. Paul Mazzeo of the West Caldwell Police Department has acted in the capacity of a part-time SRO at James Caldwell High School. Mazzeo; James Brown, principal of Grover Cleveland Middle School; and Mary Cunningham, substance abuse counselor (SAC), publicly presented a plan to change the current status and explained the benefits of a full-time SRO as well as what the officer’s responsibilities would entail.
Mazzeo stated that the schools are an extension of the community and that the obligation of the police department is to provide the same services to the school community similar to the community at large. He stressed that his goal is to build a rapport and trusting relationship with the students so that they have comfort knowing there is another person/adult that they can go to for help and to confide in.
This form of policing provides an opportunity to break down barriers and provide greater interaction with the student population, according to Mazzeo. He noted that in communities where school shootings have occurred, it was paramount to be prepared and take advantage of having someone on campus.
“I am here to help the students not to get them into trouble," Mazzeo said. "I am not here to punish the students but to help them learn from the mistakes.”
Brown noted that the SRO is an integral part of the school, and that the position is really part of the faculty. The SRO brings a new perspective and insight into the classroom, presents to sophomores in the driver’s education program and adds a greater dimension to other classes such as social studies, he added.
They also explained that the prospect of having a full-time officer would alleviate the current need for canceling presentations within specific classes because Mazzeo may at times be needed for policing the community instead of a permanent assignment to the district.
“Officer Mazzeo is part of the faculty and the relationship an SRO develops is beyond something you can measure," Brown said. “The SRO would know if something happened outside of school that can have an impact on the school day. Over time students view the SRO as another positive adult mentor and role model.”
Cunningham spoke of the constant changing laws regarding drugs and how the SRO has the ability to interact with students in a positive way, often continuing relationships established with elementary students through the DARE program. She also noted that the invaluable ability for an SRO to de-escalate a situation is critical.
Mazzeo added that because these students would be in the juvenile justice system, he as the SRO has the ability to speak with prosecutors to, if appropriate, to seek alternate means of adjudication and seek no juvenile record if possible.
When parents questioned whether the SRO would carry a firearm, Mazzeo indicated that he currently carries one and would continue to do so.
“There is no reason to ever draw a firearm unless deadly force was required," he said. "And in the event of an active shooter, yes, I will engage.”
A member of the audience questioned whether the SRO would be involved in anti-bullying measures, to which Mazzeo responded that although he is not currently part of the anti-bullying team, he is constantly listening to the students and acting to help resolve any issues.
During public comment, audience members questioned the consistency of his days in the event the police department would be short-staffed. Superintendent of Schools James Heinegg responded that turning this into a full-time position would remove the opportunity to have the officer redirected to town affairs because his permanent position would be the schools.
Questions also arose concerning the district’s financial commitment to the proposed plan. Heinegg informed the public that the district’s financial burden would be to pay for the newly hired replacement officer at the lower pay grade versus the seasoned officer at a higher pay grade.
If the proposed initiative is approved, the full-time officer would take effect for the 2019-2020 school year.
In other news, the board designated the week of Oct. 1 to Oct. 5 as a Week of Respect and School Violence Awareness Week as required by New Jersey Statute.
Concerning other agenda items, district goals for the 2018-2019 were approved and may be found on the district’s website. In preparation for the upcoming November ballot question asking voters to approve a full-day kindergarten—requiring an additional $600,000 to the district’s budget—a series of information sessions have been scheduled (dates may be found on the district’s website).
It was noted that Dr. Heinegg will be attending the HSA meetings at all four elementary school in October.