Montclair Public Schools will continue to employ a school resource officer for the 2021-2022 school year — despite pushback from some community members.

Four members of Montclair Beyond Policing — a police abolition group — spoke out against a Township Council vote to provide a school resource officer for the 2021-2022 school year, saying having an officer present encourages arrests and makes students feel unsafe. 

The district’s existing resource officer, however, told Montclair Local she spends most of her time mentoring and encouraging students. And according to the Montclair Police Department, there have been no student arrests during the past two school years. 

The resolution was passed unanimously at the council’s July 20 meeting, with no one other than the Montclair Beyond Policing members speaking against it. Detective Anjanette Sanders, the current school resource officer, makes a salary of $107,720, according to state data.

Schools with resource officers have higher arrest rates and perpetuate the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Montclair Beyond Policing member Anneliese Scherfen said at the July 20 meeting. The term describes the disproportionate tendency of minors from disadvantaged backgrounds to become incarcerated when school and community policies prioritize enforcement as a means to address problems.

“We live in a racist and punitive society, even here in Montclair,” Scherfen said at the meeting. “This may seem like a school district issue, but for those of you who vote yes to authorize this agreement, it makes you complicit in the continuation of this injustice.” 

The restorative justice programs in Montclair schools have been “a really good thing,” addressing harm in a constructive way, Scherfen said. Through the initiative, the district places a teacher on special assignment in schools to guide efforts to reduce suspensions, build community and prevent conflicts. But she said that’s not the case for school resource officers. 

“[Restorative justice] prioritizes healthy relationships and the dignity of each person,” Scherfen said. “Cops in schools can’t do that.”

A 2019 ACLU report, “Cops and No Counselors,” found that schools with police reported three and a half times as many arrests as schools without police. Black students were found to be more than twice as likely as their white classmates to be referred to law enforcement, and Black girls were more than eight times as likely to be arrested as white girls, according to the report.

School resource officers were put in place in many schools in the wake of school shootings in the late 1990s, including the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. In 1975, 1% of schools were policed, according to the ACLU report. As of 2019, 40% of schools were policed.

Montclair first employed a school resource officer in 1998, according to Lt. Tyrone Williams Jr., commander of the Montclair Police Department’s Juvenile Aid Bureau.

The district employs one school resource officer, Sanders, who is based at Montclair High School but who travels among the schools. Sanders, who has been in the position since November 2020, said she spends 90% of her time mentoring students, doing weekly check-ins with students, doing home visits to help with technology issues during remote learning and greeting students throughout the day.

“We're not there to arrest any students,” Sanders said. “We’re there to mentor and help students in any way we can.”

Sanders is helping to organize the district’s 14th annual school supply giveaway on Aug. 29. 

“The Montclair school district works collaboratively and proactively with the Montclair Police Department to ensure the safety and welfare of our school community and maintain a respectful environment for both our SROs and students,” Superintendent Jonathan Ponds told Montclair Local by email.

A lot of people don’t understand the school resource officer program, Williams said. The idea that resource officers spend all their time locking kids up is “a false narrative,” he said.

“I’ve always told people, ‘Let’s not bring everybody else’s problems to Montclair.’ We don’t have a problem with our school resource officer program,” Williams said. “We have no real knowledge of any particular problem that would cause us to even consider the removal or the cessation of the program.”

Williams served as a student resource officer in the district during the 2000-2001 school year. 

School resource officers are essential to the safety of students, and hostility toward those who help to maintain a secure environment for students is confounding, Councilman Bob Russo said at the July 20 council meeting. 

“We had people shot in schools because there really wasn’t enough security,” Russo said. “There wasn’t a presence.”

School resource officers serve an important role as the first line of defense against possible school intruders, Councilman David Cummings said at the meeting. But he said they also serve the school and community in other ways.

“These individuals have not just walked into the building, carrying a gun to make sure that students aren’t fighting or acting up,” Cummings said. “They interact with them.”

School resource officers have led community events such as Sisters on the Runway, a fashion show benefiting women and children affected by domestic violence, and the annual school supplies giveaway, he said. Their role is “not so much about safety as it is about community involvement,” he said. 

“Each of the people who have been in that position are community leaders,” Cummings said. “You go down to the park, you go to the Wrap and Roll [an annual gift drive], you go to these things, and they are there. They are present with all students.”

Proper funding for counselors and other support structures are of the “utmost importance,” Mayor Sean Spiller said at the council meeting. 

“This, like many things, should not and does not have to be framed as an either-or conversation,” Spiller said. “I think it’s a debate that is more nuanced and also requires people to look for the areas of agreement and how we can all assist our students, as opposed to necessarily saying it’s one or another.”

But in a district that had 36 staff cuts in May, Montclair Beyond Policing member Mark Joseph argued funds should be going to more counselors and educators, not police. 

“We’re taking these people out of school, but we’re giving money repeatedly to the police and the school resource officers, which to me and to many people doesn’t make sense,” Joseph said at the meeting. “As a parent, that really makes me upset.”