Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said that district policies had been returned to status quo ante after an intense close-out to the year in which staff were told to direct discipline issues through borough police.
By Matt Skoufalos
After a tense few weeks in which staff at Collingswood schools were apparently directed to filter all disciplinary problems through the borough police department at the behest of the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office (CCPO), Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said Tuesday that he had worked out “a reset” of policy with the agency.
“We’re back to where it was,” Maley said.
The mayor said the prosecutor’s office “was very helpful,” and “devoted all their resources very quickly” to resolving the issue. He promised that the agency would hold additional conversations with representatives from the borough government, schools, and police.
In an letter to Camden County Prosecutor Mary Eva Colallilo on Tuesday, Maley described a perceived “directed change in the policies” of the statewide Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) outlining the relationship among the borough school district and local law enforcement agencies.
“You and your staff made abundantly clear that our recent meeting was to reinforce the applicability of the Memorandum of Agreement, but not to expand its terms,” Maley wrote. “The instances for which school conduct may trigger a notification to law enforcement officials is set forth within the Memorandum of Agreement and has been in effect prior to our meeting in late May.”
In an accompanying statement, Colallilo said she hoped Maley’s letter “clarifies the responsibility of each party” as set forth in the MoA, thanked the mayor “for his assistance,” and commended him “for his leadership and concern for interagency cooperation in matters involving our children.”
The MoA obligates school officials to “consider the nature and seriousness of the offense and the risk that the offense poses to the health or safety of other students, school employees, or the general public” when deciding to notify police. It specifically mentions the possession of weapons, controlled substances, steroids, and date rape drugs; “the actual or threatened infliction of bodily injury”; sexual and bias crimes, arson, gambling, vandalism, and theft.
“They’re saying that their intention was not to change what the existing policy was,” Maley said. “Now we can spend a time having some conversation about why and how.”
Maley had that conversation, at least in part, in an impromptu coffee-shop meet-up with a number of borough residents Monday evening.
Collingswood Board of Education (BOE) member Robert Lewandowski had invited constituents to discuss the impact of the policy in an informal capacity.
Maley said Tuesday that many of the concerns he’d heard Monday were well founded.
“I heard a lot of issues about communication and how it got done, and I think it’s all valid stuff,” the mayor said. “It’s all valid for us to take a look and see how we do not go through this again.
“There’s at least one family that I know has been pretty severely impacted by this already, and I am working on that,” he said. “We’re trying to get that squared away; this is, I think, the end of this issue.”
Maley also clarified that, contrary to the letter issued by BOE President David Routzahn on Monday, which stated that the board was unaware of “any single event” that prompted the shift in enforcement, the root causes of the intervention from the CCPO were known at least to Collingswood Police Chief Kevin Carey, Collingswood Superintendent Scott Oswald, and himself.
All three attended a meeting convened “at the prosecutor’s directive,” during which Maley said the agency did not require “that every disciplinary action is to involve the police.
“There was a mishandling of an incident,” Maley said. “The incident did merit a pretty severe response. The way we left the meeting was, as we work through this, the line will be clear about when you have to call [the CCPO],” he said. “There was no disagreement when we left that table.”
Lewandowski described the confusion that resulted from Routzahn’s letter—the “no single incident” phrase—as “an unfortunate use of words.
“What I think they meant to say was there was no incident that rose to the level of this reaction,” Lewandowski said. “To me, that would have been a better choice of words.”
Regardless of the intention or timing of the BOE letter, parents in the borough had a variety of reactions to the impact of the policy, however short-lived it may have been.
Collingswood resident Jay Waugh, who works as the Supervisor of Special Education for the Camden City school district, worried that the involvement of police in school investigations would infringe on the rights of students with disabilities.
“Law enforcement officers often rely on the knowledge of school administers to interpret Special Education code when dealing with disciplinary/criminal incidents for students with disabilities,” Waugh wrote in an e-mail on Monday.
“This mandate could potentially trump New Jersey code, violating these students’ rights, and opening the door to a host of due process cases.”
Collingswood resident Sarah Mello objected to police invoking the authority of the state office of Child Protection and Permanency (formerly known as the Division of Youth and Family Services, or DYFS), as outlined in a letter from Collingswood Police Chief Kevin Carey on Monday.
“Demanding that police and DYFS be involved at the onset of any issue is going to be dangerous to our children and our staff,” Mello wrote.
“Many families have good reason to be wary of policy or county agency involvement. Children and youth may choose not to report issues at their early stages out of fear of police involvement, and things that could easily be resolved with training, counseling or social/emotional curricula will not reach the attention of trained educators and child development specialists until they are much larger and more volatile.”
Mello, a certified counselor, also criticized the possible overuse of police in the schools as “negat [ing]the expertise of our [school] staff and the relationships they work tirelessly to build with our students and families.” She noted that “across the country, children of color, children with special needs, and low-income children are disproportionately disciplined,” and feared the result would be the same in the Collingswood school district.
“In order for students to learn they must feel supported and cared for by their teachers,” she wrote. “They need to trust one another and they need to be allowed to make mistakes and have the opportunity to correct them and learn from them… This mandate interferes with children’s social and emotional development, a key component of academic success.”
Bob Witanek, who blogs about law and justice issues in New Jersey at Decarcerate NJ, echoed Mello’s fears, pointing out that the racial disparity among jailed residents of New Jersey is twice the national average, with blacks “12 times as likely to end up in prison.”
“Policies that turn every school discipline matter into a police matter will only exacerbate this matter, especially given the similar racial disparities in school discipline that are typical in New Jersey and throughout the nation,” Witanek wrote.
“Why does every possible infraction have to be run by the prosecutor’s office for possible police action?” he wrote. “There is no rule that every violation of law has to be prosecuted…what does this say about the future of New Jersey public schools that, under the whim of a local prosecutor, teachers get turned to snitches and education gets criminalized?”
Lewandowski left the meeting with a list of grievances that he said he would communicate to the board at large. Among the priorities mentioned was delineating “an age-appropriate system” to guide communication among police and students; making sure any officers who contact students have training in child development; and improving communication with parents “so we can make clear to the community what happens when the police come.
“We hope we can go back to the way it was and teachers can make decisions on this,” Lewandowski said. “At the same time, we want to work on putting together a resolution that defines the community boundaries and the policy if we’re required to go to police.
“We need to figure out a better way to communicate, just in general,” he said.
‘There’s got to be some negotiation’
After digesting Maley’s letter on Tuesday, Oswald maintained his version of events regarding the meeting with the prosecutor’s office, which he described as having been called by Carey “to discuss procedures,” and as resulting in new rules for police to handle school discipline concerns.
“I walked in there thinking they were meeting with every school district,” the superintendent said.
Oswald said that Maley’s description of a “mishandled incident” was related to him second-hand, not by the CCPO, and not during their meeting. He also pointed to Carey’s letter to borough parents as being “pretty clear that the agency required us to contact police,” and said the school district was being unfairly scapegoated in the process.
“The only reason we stopped handling things the way we always did is because of the directive of the prosecutor’s office,” Oswald said. “Going back to the way it was doesn’t erase the last three-and-a-half weeks. We were under a directive to go well beyond the Memorandum of Agreement.
“If we did something wrong, we will own it, we will fix it, and we will move on,” he said. “To know what we did, someone has to meet with us and explain what we did wrong. Fixing it means it has to be appropriate for everybody, which means we have to be given the authority to act on a school administrative level. That’s where there’s got to be some negotiation.
“I understand the law enforcement arm of this has their own protocols,” Oswald said. “You can’t say that your rules are of a greater importance than ours.”
Oswald said that he left the meeting with the CCPO feeling “pretty clear that the agency required us to contact the police,” and that Carey’s letter reinforced that assumption. Moving forward, he said the district, police, and local authorities must refine mutual policies “so the process is fair” to all agencies.
“When the police or the prosecutor’s office take over an incident we know nothing, and cannot take action against a student,” Oswald said. “I don’t have any issue with calling police if we have an issue that rises to the level of police involvement. At the same time, we need to protect our own interests. We can’t just have an incident taken out of our hands and call it business as usual while the legal system churns.”
In hindsight, the superintendent said he would have notified parents in the district sooner regarding the change in policy, but maintained that because the shift was in police procedures and not school procedures, he believed the messaging should have come from law enforcement.
“Every issue that we have is a learning process,” Oswald said. “This is one that I believe strongly the information needed to come from the police. Should we have gotten together sooner and really made this happen? Yes, we probably should have done that, and we probably should have done that together. I know that, had I just issued something to parents, my interpretation of that meeting could have been very different.”
Oswald also said that the Camden County Superintendent, New Jersey Commissioner of Education, and state attorney general’s office had all been looped into the conversation. He said the district, police, and borough government would all continue to work with the CCPO to refine the boundaries of interagency cooperation.
“I hope that everyone that has an interest gets together and really comes to some agreement as to what we can all do to move forward, working together,” Oswald said.
For more coverage of this issue, see the following related stories:
- Police Investigations Mandated for Discipline Issues at Collingswood Schools
- Collingswood Schools, Police, Mayor Respond to Prosecutor’s Office on Discipline Cases
- BREAKING: Prosecutor Promises Meet-up with Collingswood PD, BOE, Mayor Over School Discipline Issues