By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – On the heels of yet another fatal school shooting earlier in the day, this time in Maryland, Middletown’s Board of Education took steps on Tuesday, March 20 to help ensure each of its 17 schools will be safer and more secure in the future.
At the introduction of the district school budget hearing, Middletown schools’ business administrator Amy Gallagher said one of the “bigger areas” in the 2018-2019 budget focuses on creating 15 new “Safe School Officer” roles. The spending plan calls for a $455,952 expenditure for safe school officers, which Gallagher called “SSOs.”
The four security guards currently split between the district’s two high schools – Middletown North and Middletown South – are to be retrained and become part of that team.
“As you may or may not know, right now we don’t have security guards specifically assigned to the elementary schools,” Gallagher said. “This would assign security guards to the elementary schools and also bolster what we have in the middle schools and high schools.”
Earlier in the day, authorities in Maryland said a 17-year-old male student shot and wounded three other students at Great Mills High School with a handgun before he was stopped and died after a gun fight with an armed school resource officer on duty at the high school. One of the victims, a 16-year old girl, died later on Tuesday.
Middletown Schools Superintendent William O. George explained to about 35 parents in attendance how proposed SSOs are different from school resource officers. The main difference, George said, is that an SSO would not be permitted to carry a concealed firearm into the school. He emphasized that option is not on the table right now. SSOs are also school employees, while school resource officers are police department employees.
An SSO “works directly with the school system and will not be carrying a weapon but would be a retired law enforcement professional with background and training with other responsibilities in the school,” George explained.
George said school security discussions, in Middletown and across the county, have increased and accelerated recently. He met with the Monmouth County Superintendent of Schools’ roundtable, has had talks with the Monmouth County Police Chief Association and will meet soon with the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office as well as other state departments, said George.
“Maintaining a hardened front” is the main benefit of having an SSO in each of Middletown’s schools, George said.
While supportive of proposed security increases, some concerned parents spoke up during public comment to question the viability of retired professionals and whether or not concealed carry should be an option.
“If they don’t have any type of weapon, then what’s the difference between (an SSO) and just a retired elderly person running around if the school gets breached?” questioned resident Jen Rosen.
“I think a trained law enforcement professional is fantastic – I think they add a value – but my question is on the age and the fitness,” she continued. “We’re talking about people who are retired for a reason.”
Maryellen Chappell, who has children in three district schools, said her husband is a retired police officer and that she wholly supports having an armed officer in the schools
“The time is now. We just had a shooting today. And you know what, there was one fatality, but that’s one fatality too much,” Chappell said. “But that guy was taken out by a security guard that was trained to take that person out.”
George reaffirmed that Middletown schools “are not having armed, concealed carry at this time,” but added this process could “create the opportunity for that in the future if that’s the direction over time.”
Also part of the budget increases to school security were a $160,000 cost for replacing the public address system at Middletown South, as well as at least $100,000 budgeted for replacing secure APR doors at the elementary schools.
The push for improved infrastructure highlights a two-year initiative where Middletown’s schools have budgeted $2.3 million over the past two years for security and surveillance measures.
The 2018-2019 proposed budget of approximately $141.6 million includes an estimated 1.8 percent school levy increase to homeowners in Middletown. A homeowner with a home assessed at the average value of $423,427 would pay approximately an additional $156 under the spending plan. The tax levy would generate over $2.4 million in new revenue for the school district.
The tentative budget will be voted on at the Board’s March 28 meeting and a public hearing and final adoption will likely occur at the April 25 meeting.
This article was first published in the March 22-29, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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