As New Jersey’s school boards seek to make their schools safer and more secure, one step many have considered is whether to place a law enforcement presence in schools. Boards of education making that decision now have a new option.

Beginning June 1, school boards across New Jersey will have a new alternative as the result of a recent law that creates a type of law enforcement personnel specifically trained and hired to provide security in and around schools. This new category of officer will be known as a Class Three Special Law Enforcement Officer (SLEO), and it has the potential to serve as a safety-enhancing, cost-beneficial resource for districts.

Choices in Law Enforcement It is almost universally accepted that a school resource officer (SRO) is the ideal choice when placing a law enforcement presence in a school. An SRO is a specially-trained sworn police officer who is assigned full-time to protect the children, staff, and property in New Jersey’s public schools. The mandatory training they receive ensures they are adequately prepared to face challenges that are unique to the school climate, and handle them appropriately.

The NJSBA School Security Task Force, a group convened in March 2013 as a part of the NJSBA’s Safe and Secure Schools Project, in response to the deadly December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, studied all aspects of school security. In its 2014 final report, the task force stated that an SRO can provide a critical safety factor and valuable counseling and support services for students. Therefore, the employment of SROs is the “preferred” model for a law enforcement presence in a school building.

The New Jersey School Security Task Force (NJSSTF), which was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie the same year and also charged with studying school security, later reinforced that argument, stressing the “best practice in school safety and security…would entail the use of SROs exclusively.”

However, hiring an SRO may not be financially possible for districts that have to balance the cost against other important educational priorities. Even the most ardent supporters of the SRO concept acknowledge that cost is a significant factor in the decision. Having a full-time, trained police officer in a school means paying a full-time officer’s salary and benefits. The district may then turn to other options.

Other Options Several school districts have employed retired police officers as part of their security detail. While they bring professional law enforcement experience, some school security experts caution against the practice, as they have no official law enforcement powers or immunity, and do not report through the local law enforcement chain of command.

Private security guards are another, potentially low-cost, option for schools. However, as with retired officers, they are civilians and possess no official status as police officers. They also may lack the training regular police officers undergo or that which prepares them to work in a school environment.

Class Three SLEO – What is It? Signed by Gov. Christie in November 2016, the new Class Three SLEO law established a new type of school security personnel. Class Three SLEOs will be hired for the explicit purpose of providing security at public or nonpublic schools when schools are in session or occupied by students or staff. They will also be authorized to provide security at the state’s county colleges.

Enactment of the legislation was the culmination of a years-long effort by stakeholders from the education and law enforcement communities, with the backing of the two task forces charged with improving school security.

The Class Three SLEO concept was originally developed by the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police (NJSACOP), which envisioned the position as an SLEO who would receive additional, specialized training and be assigned to schools. NJSACOP presented the idea to the New Jersey School Board Association’s School Security Task Force and later to the New Jersey School Security Task Force. While making clear their belief that the employment of a school resource officer is the ideal choice if a local board of education decides to institute an armed law enforcement presence in a school, both task forces ultimately endorsed the Class Three SLEO proposal.

Class One, Class Two Currently, there are two different classes of special law enforcement officers in New Jersey. Class One officers are generally used for routine traffic detail, spectator control, or to supplement police presence in a given area. They have authority to issue summonses for certain offense, but do not possess full policing powers and are not authorized to carry firearms.

Typically employed for seasonal work in resort communities, Class Two SLEOs are trained, but part-time, police officers who, while on duty, possess all the powers and responsibilities of law enforcement. Due to their part-time nature, Class Two SLEOs can usually be hired at a lower salary and fringe benefit costs than regular police officers. While using Class Two SLEOs for school security may be financially advantageous, there are restrictions; state law limits the number of hours of employment, and number of such officers, that a municipality may employ. In addition, the training such officers receive does not address working in the school climate.

A Class Three SLEO will meet all of the qualifications necessary to serve as a Class One or Class Two SLEO, and will also have to satisfy additional criteria. A Class Three SLEO must be a retired law enforcement officer, less than 65 years of age, who previously served as a fully-trained, full-time police officer in New Jersey. The officer must have served as a full-time officer within three years of appointment as a Class Three SLEO (or five years during the first year following the effective date of the new law). The officer must also be physically capable of performing the functions of the position, and possess a New Jersey Police Training Commission basic police officer certification or New Jersey State Police Academy certification.

School Training Required Of particular significance to the NJSBA and its members, the officer must also complete the training course for school resource officers (SROs). This requirement was strongly recommended by both the NJSBA task force and the NJSSTF. This sentiment was shared by Gov. Christie, who conditionally vetoed an earlier version of the enabling legislation since it did not require the officers to complete SRO training. The governor stated it is “vital to ensure that the officer is integrated into the unique setting of the school community and is properly trained to function not only as a safety expert and law enforcer, but also as a liaison to community resources, educators, and counselors.”

While on duty, Class Three SLEOs will have full police powers and be permitted to carry a firearm. The law stipulates the officers may only be hired “in a part-time capacity,” and may only be employed to assist local law enforcement with security duties. They are not intended to supplant an SRO or a police officer otherwise stationed at a school. They are explicitly prohibited from receiving any pension or health care benefits through the position.

Why Hire a Class Three SLEO? So, what are the benefits of placing a Class Three SLEO in our schools?

Since the officers will be part-time and not eligible for health care or pension benefits, they can be hired at a lower cost than the typical SRO. However, the decision should not be based solely on economic considerations. The Class Three SLEO will also be someone who has gone through the extensive training required of any full-time police officer, and since they will be retired officers, they will have accumulated years of real-life experience enforcing the law. And since they will operate under the authority of the local police unit, they will have full police powers, something typical retired officers and private security guards lack.

The officer will also be someone who either served as an SRO during their time as a full-time officer, or who underwent comprehensive SRO training prior to commencing employment as a Class Three SLEO. Ideally, Class Three SLEOs will also be familiar with the community they serve and the schools themselves. This assures local school boards that they will be gaining someone truly qualified to take on the role.

Finally, the decision to hire a Class Three SLEO is permissive. It is an additional option of which boards of education can take advantage, but it does not replace any other alternative type of security personnel available for board consideration. For districts without the capacity to hire a full-time SRO, but who desire to have a security presence in the school, a Class Three SLEO could be a valuable alternative.

Other New School Security Laws In addition to the Class Three SLEO proposal, the Legislature and governor have approved various other proposals aimed at improving school security over the past year:

Secure Building DesignP.L.2016, c.79 (A-3348/S-2439) implements various recommendations of the NJSSTF concerning the architectural design of new school construction and the “hardening” of school perimeters and building entryways. With respect to new school construction, a school district must include in the architectural design of the facility such features as:

  • Wherever possible, a building site with adequate space to accommodate bus and vehicular traffic separately;
  • Separate vehicular drop-off/pick-up areas;
  • Marked school entrances with a uniform numbering system;
  • Keyless locking mechanisms;
  • Access control systems which allow for remote locking and unlocking;
  • Sufficient space for evacuation in the event of an emergency; and
  • Having areas in the school building intended for public use separated and secured from all other areas.

The law also provides that in both new school construction and existing school buildings, a district shall employ various school security principles and standards. Examples of such standards include requiring school security personnel be in uniform; limiting the number of doors for access by school staff; keeping exterior doors locked; creating secure vestibules at the school’s main entrance; using surveillance cameras as a target-hardening tool; and developing a strict key distribution protocol.

Enhanced Security DrillsP.L.2016, c.80 (A-3349/S-2428) codifies various NJSSTF proposals that strengthen the state’s School Security Drill Law. First, all school district employees will now be required to complete annual training on school safety and security. (Current law only requires such training once for certificated teaching staff members.) Second, annual training must be conducted collaboratively with emergency responders in order to identify weaknesses in school security policies and procedures, while increasing the effectiveness of emergency responders. Third, a law enforcement officer must be present for at least one drill each school year so he or she can make recommendations for improvements or changes. Fourth, an actual fire or school security emergency will now be considered a “drill” for the purposes of complying with the School Security Drill Law. Fifth, the definition of “school security drill” is expanded to include practice procedures for responding to bomb threats. The law goes into effect at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year.

Nonpublic Security Aid Approved in mid-2016, the “Secure Schools for All Children Act,” (P.L.2016, c.49; A-2689/S-754) established a state aid program for security services, equipment or technology to ensure a safe and secure school environment for private and parochial school students. The fiscal year 2016-2017 state budget allocated $7.5 million toward the program.

Financing School Security ImprovementsAnother new law (P.L.2016, 100; A-2158/S-2241) will allow the use of emergency reserve funds or proceeds from bonds issued by the NJ Economic Development Authority to finance school security improvements. Such improvements would be limited to safety and security measures involving building monitoring and communication technology designed to address school crime and the safety of students, staff, and visitors to school facilities. This includes such items as: security cameras to monitor the school; an electronic notification system; an automatic door locking system; and a badge system for school employees.

More to Come? It is clear from the activity we have witnessed at the statehouse in the last few years that that Legislature and governor have made school security a major policy priority. It is the hope of all stakeholders that these initiatives will reap tangible benefits for school districts and the children we all have a responsibility to protect. This issue is not one that is going away.