New Jersey town arms its schools

Marlboro's decision on arming its schools was implemented three weeks after the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut.
CBS News

By Phil Hirschkorn and Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson

(CBS News) MARLBORO, N.J. -- When elementary and middle school classes resumed this week in suburban Marlboro, New Jersey, there was an armed police officer on duty in all eight of the town's kindergarten through eighth grade schools.

Marlboro Mayor Jonathan Hornik, whose three children attend Marlboro public schools, said he has not second-guessed the decision implemented three weeks after gunman Adam Lanza murdered 20 first graders and 6 adult staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

"We could have done nothing and then hoped that something didn't happen, but hope is not a solution, or we could have taken action," Hornik said.

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In late December, the Marlboro board of education, which has an $80 million annual budget, agreed to spend $100,000 during the next three months to station its own police officers in the schools for the entire day.

"I don't think you can put a price tag on the children's safety" Hornik said. "These are trained professionals, the same professionals we call if there is an active shooter in the school."

School superintendent David Abbott described the town's police as part of the fabric of the community--familiar faces to the children, not strangers with guns. The school shifts are being covered by a combination of on-duty, off-duty, and retired officers.

"It does add a certain level of security for our parents. I don't think our children notice any difference," Abbott said.

Marlboro won't decide until this spring whether to make its added school security permanent, and if it does, how to pay for it.

"It's a temporary solution right now to a horrific act that happened that pushed the ante up considerably for all schools to look at say, 'Are we doing all we can?'" Abbott said. "We looked at what can we do that will work really well and send a message very clearly that these are safe, secure schools."

Marlboro parents expressed mixed feelings about the armed officers inside elementary schools, and some worried about the impression the move will leave on young children.

"I was shocked, but I feel better about it," said Maria Vitale, the mother of an eighth-grader. "It makes me feel safer, because it's a policeman that has the gun; it's not just anyone."

"Maybe it's a bit of an overreaction to what happened in Newtown," said Larry Kaplow, a father of two teenagers in the town's high school, where a police officer was assigned before the Newtown tragedy. "If it prevents violence, that's great, but maybe there are some other more efficient ways we can protect the kids in the schools."

Marlboro had already locked all school doors and required visitors to swipe identification cards through a kiosk, made by LobbyGuard, which stores the names of known felons, sex offenders, and others not permitted on site.

Nationwide, even before Newtown, one-third of American public schools had an armed guard or police officer present, according to the National Center For Education Statistics.

Marlboro is a quaint, low-crime bedroom community of 41,000 residents, about one hour south of New York City. It has not suffered a gun homicide in the 40 years that Police Chief Bruce Hall has been on the force.

Hall, who's juggling his staff of 66 officers to protect the schools, likens the added security to an insurance policy.

"You have car insurance; you have life insurance and health insurance. Do you use them every day? No. But it's insurance. If you need them, they're there, and that's basically what this comes down to," Hall said.

Chief Hall and Superintendent Abbott concede that one police officer might not be able to stop a determined gunman with an arsenal.

"There is no possibility of making a school or a home 100 percent impervious to this kind of action. You can't do it."

No officials in Marlboro are talking about arming teachers.

"That's just off the wall. That's crazy. It's not going to happen, not under my watch," Abbott said. "Their job is to nurture, care, teach. My bottom line is academic achievement. If we're not accomplishing that for every child, then I am failing, and so is the school system. But I can't do that if they are not safe. Nobody can learn very well if they don't feel safe."

Mayor Hornik, a Democrat, supports gun control measures proposed by President Obama and reintroduced this week on Congress -- an assault weapons ban, a ban on high capacity magazines that hold more than ten bullets, extending background checks for all buyers at gun shows.

"I don't set national policy for guns," Hornik said. "But I do have to protect 8,000 students."