There is still a considerable amount of confusion regarding the different types of security personnel who are hired to work in New Jersey schools.
Some people are still unsure or aware of the differences in the roles, responsibilities or restrictions for personnel they are hiring.
To understand the different personnel options that school districts have for meeting their security needs in today’s climate, it may be easier to explain them if we break them down into two separate and distinctly different categories.
We can then look at the various choices under each category so that those who have the responsibility for staffing the positions are well acquainted with their options.
Before making the decision on which type of security is right for you, it is important that you seek legal advice in helping you determine which choice will meet your district’s security requirements.
Civilian Personnel with No Law Enforcement Authority Historically, a civilian employee has been the most popular and the most common type of security personnel employed by school districts nationwide. Although it is not uncommon that these positions are sometimes filled by employees who are retired police officers, the retired officers do not have any law enforcement authority.
In the post-Columbine era, some districts have chosen to require those who are retired law enforcement officers and legally authorized to carry a firearm to be armed while performing their security duties in their schools. Although these security guards may be authorized to carry a weapon due to their status as a retired police officer in New Jersey, that privilege does not grant these persons any law enforcement authority. These armed or unarmed security guards are considered employees of the school district and are subject to all the laws, rules, regulations and policies that any other school employee is subject to. It would be advisable for a school board to have specific policies which address those employees who are working in an armed capacity, and districts should seek legal advice in drafting those policies.
Another option for deploying civilian guards, whether armed or unarmed, is to contract with a security services company to provide this service. Those guards are employees of the security services company and there may be federal and state restrictions particularly regarding confidentiality laws and access to student records. The contract should stipulate the responsibilities and the restrictions of these security guards. They do not have law enforcement authority.
Law Enforcement Personnel These personnel are full-time sworn law enforcement personnel, have full law enforcement authority and are employees of the local law enforcement agency. This person could be either a state, county or local law enforcement officer and could be assigned to the school in either a full-time or part-time capacity.
School Resource Officers Many of these officers, troopers or sheriff’s officers are deployed as school resource officers (SROs) and are required to attend a mandatory 40-hour Safe Schools Resource Officer Training Course which is regulated by the New Jersey Police Training Commission and is held in an approved police training facility. This training equips the SRO to act not only as an arm of law enforcement, but also to act as an educator and counselor for students, gaining their trust.
To understand the role of the SRO, it is important to understand that the SRO program is really based on the philosophy of community policing and is considered the best model of policing in schools. School resource officers are police officers who are assigned to work with children. They are protectors who have extensive training and experience as first responders to emergencies and in helping those who may be in crisis. They are adjunct members of the school community, role models, trusted adults and mentors to students and staff. They are a liaison between the police department, school administrators and the local community.
In many cases, SROs can also teach classes such as the DARE or LEAD curriculum as well as other prevention-based programs to elementary and secondary students. SROs encourage and model respect for others and help foster a positive culture and climate within their schools. They can provide law-related education to high school students in driver’s education among other courses. They play an extremely vital role, on all levels, in identifying at-risk students and cases of abuse, intervening in drug and alcohol use and providing support for students as another trusted adult who they can turn to. The school is a community and SROs keep their community safe in many ways.
In What Makes Schools Safe, the 2014 report of the NJSBA School Security Task Force, school resource officers were described as the clear choice for school interested in having an officer in a school. “State officials and experts who consulted with the NJSBA Task Force expressed the same opinion about the use of armed security in schools: If a local board of education decides to institute an armed security presence in a school, the ideal method is the employment of a school resource officer,” the report said. However, the report recognized that the cost of this option — which means paying a full-time police officer’s salary and benefits — may not be manageable for all school districts: “Nonetheless, even the most ardent supporters of the SRO concept acknowledge the cost factor.”
Some school districts may hire off-duty law enforcement through their local police department to work in a part-time capacity as needed. These off-duty law enforcement officers are often used strictly for security and may not function as school resource officers. They have full law enforcement authority.
Class II Special Law Enforcement Officers Another option some school districts may use is a Special Law Enforcement Officer Class II (SLEO II). This special class of police officer is considered a regular law enforcement officer while working. They also have full law enforcement authority while on duty. The NJ SAFE Task Force report described Class II officers as follows: “Special Law Enforcement Officers,” (SLEO IIs) are part-time police officers often employed by resort towns during the summer months to augment the town’s complement of regular year-round officers…Because they are not full-time employees, they can be hired at lower salary and fringe benefit/pension costs than regular police officers.”
There many restrictions placed on law enforcement agencies when employing SLEO Class II officers, such as only having the ability to hire one full-time officer and employing a limited number of part-time officers that will not exceed 10% of the total number of current full-time police officers employed by the agency. There are a limited number of agencies who may exceed that number if they meet the requirements as described within the statute. These SLEO II officers may be deployed in the role of a school resource officer and if so, would also be required to attend the 40-hour Safe Schools Resource Officer Training Course.
Class III Special Law Enforcement Officers In 2016, there was an additional position created by law — Special Law Enforcement Officer Class III (SLEO III), which has become increasingly popular among school districts looking for an armed presence in schools. Creation of the Class III SLEO category was a recommendation in NJSBA’s 2014 report and the state’s 2015 security task force, and was supported by the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. The Class III SLEO category was designed to provide a lower-cost option for school boards that cannot afford to cover salary and benefits for an active-duty police officer or that want to expand security staffing to assist current SROs.
The SLEO III law was also recently amended with some important changes that are set to take effect on July 1, 2019. The changes include opening the pool of eligible candidates to include other professional retired law enforcement personnel rather than only former police officers and troopers. The previous version of the law set limitations on the number of years an officer could be retired before being hired, while the new law removes those restrictions. The underlying purpose of this law was to create a law enforcement position that would make it more affordable for school districts to hire police officers who could provide safety and security exclusively in their buildings. This law also gained some traction when presented as an alternative to armed guards who do not have any law enforcement authority.
Below are some of the requirements which must be met to qualify as a Class III SLEO under the law:
- Must be a retired police officer who has previously served as a duly qualified, fully trained, full-time officer in any municipality, or county of this state, or as a member of the New Jersey State Police or had served as a duly qualified, fully-trained, full-time officer in any law enforcement position eligible for participation in the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System or in any federal or bi-state law enforcement agency or as a member of the State Police and was separated from that prior service in good standing.
- Must be retired from that agency in good standing; must be appointed yearly and must be less than 65 years of age (can only be reappointed up to age 65).
- Must pass a psychological and medical exam and have a doctor complete a medical certification form.
- Must pass a drug test pursuant to the Attorney General’s law enforcement drug testing policy.
- Must complete school resource officer training within 12 months of being appointed and conform to Attorney General’s mandatory in-service and agency training requirements.
- Must be a uniformed officer, displaying the Special Law Enforcement Officer Class III patch provided by the Police Training Commission.
The responsibilities of the Class III SLEO are dictated by the chief of police but are often mutually agreed upon in consultation with the superintendent of schools before these officers are deployed in the school.
Generally, Class III SLEOs in New Jersey are either assigned strictly to a security role or they function as a school resource officer within a school community. There are differing views as to the appropriate role that the Class III SLEOs should fulfill, but there are numerous reports that support the role of SROs as the most appropriate and best practice for policing in schools. In fact, the 2019 State Memorandum of Agreement Between Law Enforcement and Education Officials clearly states that Class III SLEOs may assume the role of school resource officer when schools are in session or occupied by students or staff.
The decision of which type of security personnel to employ in local schools is best left to each school board and school district. However, boards are urged to consult with their board attorneys and insurance carriers to help determine the right choice.