Collingswood Town Forum Unpacks Police Involvement in School Discipline Issues

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Representatives from the borough police, schools, government, and the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office met with residents to review the events that led to police investigating student behavior incidents.

By Matt Skoufalos

Parents question school officials and law enforcement at the Collingswood Community Center. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Parents question school officials and law enforcement at the Collingswood Community Center. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

For a number of weeks at the end of the school year, the Collingswood school district operated under an intensified policy in which school officials notified borough police for every student discipline concern.

More than a month later, it took a roomful of top law enforcement, government, and school officials to resolve parents’ concerns about why it happened.

On Tuesday, Camden County Prosecutor Mary Eva Colalillo, Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, Collingswood Police Chief Kevin Carey, Collingswood Superintendent Scott Oswald, and the entirety of the borough school board met with parents for almost two-and-a-half hours to sort out the issues that led up to those encounters.

According to all parties, no single event prompted the May 25 meeting among the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office (CCPO), school district, and Collingswood police.

Instead, the meeting was precipitated by a number of distinct events.

Attorney Joseph Betley is solicitor for the school districts of both Collingswood and Haddon Heights. In the latter capacity, Betley had met with a representative of the CCPO to discuss reporting requirements under the statewide Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) among law enforcement and school districts.

After that meeting, Betley contacted Collingswood Chief of Police Kevin Carey to arrange a similar meeting in Collingswood, which was attended by Oswald, Maley, and CCPO Special Assistant Prosecutor Angela Seixas.

Camden County Prosecutor Mary Eva Colalillo. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Camden County Prosecutor Mary Eva Colalillo. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Colalillo said the agenda of that meeting, which she described as “not adversarial [but]instructional,” was to discuss reporting requirements under the MoA for incidents involving harm done to a child by a school staff member.

Colalillo said her office twice investigated a rumor of inappropriate contact between a school staff member and a student, which she said was determined to be “unfounded in the end” among families who are friends.

“Nothing happened that precipitated this meeting that should upset you,” she told the crowd.

Although that incident was determined to have been unfounded, Carey said it was reported correctly.

However, the chief also had concerns that there had been a delay in reporting a separate issue that occurred between a pair of students, and wanted to review the terms of the MoA so that law enforcement and the school district “would have the same understanding.”

Parents weren’t notified about the change in policy because the prosecutor’s office feared mishandling of abuse cases.

“We did tell them, ‘Do not call the parents’,” Colalillo said. “We were there for abusive parents.”

The MoA makes no distinction between how to handle the investigation of a teacher harming a child and a parent harming a child, and the prosecutor said she didn’t want the schools to differentiate, either. If a parent were the abuser in such a circumstance, notifying him or her about an investigation could put children at greater risk, Colalillo reasoned. Likewise, a teacher failing to notify law enforcement about a student believed to be at risk could be similarly dangerous.

“It is a difficult provision for schools to understand, which is why we routinely lecture on this topic,” she said. “We went there with the sole purpose of instructing what happens when your child is hurt by a teacher.”

Oswald said that the district didn’t notify parents because it feared antagonizing the prosecutor’s office and subjecting the district and its staff to further liability risks. The superintendent also said he believed police should have notified borough residents of the change, and that the district worked to follow an appeals process outlined in the MoA even as it disagreed with the policy.

“Our belief was that we should try to take care of this quietly before putting the prosecutor’s office on the defensive,” Oswald said. “That was the judgment I made. We went through the process that was outlined in the MoA. Those were the steps that we took. It was not intentional that we were hiding anything from the public.”

Collingswood residents attend a forum on police involvement in school discipline. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Collingswood residents attend a forum on police involvement in school discipline. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

The district did not feel it had the freedom to oppose the policy outlined by the prosecutor’s office, which it interpreted as a need to notify police for discipline investigations in the schools.

“Could we have pushed back?” Oswald said. “To be honest, that’s not the world in which I live.”

Oswald said he has no qualms about opposing a policy established by the state Department of Education, but that the authority of the prosecutor’s office left him feeling out of his depth. The superintendent said he believed he was dealing with a change in interpretation of the MoA, not with a violation of its terms.

When it comes to the person who’s sitting in the meeting who’s in charge of seeing official misconduct…I’m going to take that seriously,” Oswald said. “If that’s a mistake on my part, I’ll own that mistake, but I think I’m pretty reasonable for listening to the assistant prosecutor. I see her as the expert in this.”

Maley acknowledged that the district could have required the changes to be formalized in writing, but that the MoA allows for administrative oversight with which it didn’t believe it was out of compliance.

“We screwed up,” the mayor said.

In the future, police will not be dispatched to the school district to interview students who are not suspected of a crime.

“Everyone here is deeply committed to the children of this community, and that will not change,” Carey said.

Acknowledging that Collingswood police officers questioned elementary-school children in the weeks following the May 25 meeting, Carey said any future police involvement in the school would be for “custodial interrogations” only, and only for suspicion of a serious crime. Under such circumstances, students would know that they are being detained, the chief said.

“We did not conduct any custodial interrogations while responding to the schools,” Carey said. “We went to the school and asked fact-finding questions or informal questioning to determine what happened.

“The last thing I want as the chief of police in Collingswood is for a uniformed officer to go to speak to any child,” he said. “I have worked long and hard to get into the elementary schools.”

Maley echoed Carey’s remarks, saying, “These events, there should not have been a cop there.”

“We are deeply sorry that this whole incident happened,” the mayor said, adding that he and Carey have contacted or attempted to contact all the families affected by the uptick in police enforcement in the school district.

Stacy Dos Santos admonishes borough officials for questioning her son. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Stacy Dos Santos admonishes borough officials for questioning her son. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Oswald said that the district will contact parents in circumstances in which there is no suspicion of a crime as well as when a crime is suspected of having happened.

“If there was, we contact the parents, and then we contact the police,” the superintendent said.

“Prior to May 25, that is what would have happened.”

Collingswood parent Stacy Dos Santos, who said her son was traumatized by an interrogation from uniformed officers and the principal of his school, asked the panel how she should resolve his anxiety around the incident.

“[They] told him, ‘We deal with a lot of liars, Vinnie. Tell us what you said; tell us what happened,’” Dos Santos said. “This, in fact, was an investigation; an interrogation. What am I to say to my child?

“I’m really upset that you guys did not act in the best interests of our children,” she said. “You chose to use our children as pawns in this without any notification. If you didn’t agree with this, you didn’t have to enforce it.”

Maley offered to help Dos Santos work with the police department “to try to get [her son]over the hump.

“We’d really like to do that,” he said.

Collingswood Board of Education (BOE) representatives expressed regret at failing to handle the incident more capably.

BOE member Tim Farrow said he was “disgusted with the idea of police being called for minor incidents and approaching children,” but that the board did not have the opportunity to convene before the end of the year and take formal action.

“What do we do? We don’t enforce it? We ignore it? That’s a lot easier said than done,” Farrow said. “We have rights, but there’s laws too. It’s the chief law enforcement agency for the county. We didn’t just roll over and let it happen, but to say it’s that simple to flat-out ignore it…”

“We all either have or had children in the district,” said Collingswood BOE President Dave Routzahn. “Our own kids go here, and naturally, we want the best for them and the best for your children. We are strongly committed to making sure that is the case always.”

The prosecutor’s office promised future instruction of school officials and law enforcement about how to report potentially criminal matters involving children in the district.

Colalillo said her office would provide annual instruction to law enforcement about the distinction between interrogating children and adults, as well as when it’s necessary for schools to call law enforcement for criminal matters.

“Everyone that signs [the MoA] must commit to communication,” Colalillo said.

“It’s critically important that out of this bad episode, we do what’s going on here,” Maley said. “Hopefully when we get beyond this, we can be focusing on whatever is the next issue that we have to address.”

“If you have a concern of something that’s going on in our schools, you start with the teacher, move up to the principal, and then come to my office,” Oswald said. “I’ve never turned a parent away from speaking with them. Usually at the end of that conversation, the two sides come a whole lot closer together.”

“Everyone should acknowledge they’ve all received a response,” Colalillo told the crowd. “The stuff that’s gone on the last couple weeks in public is not helping your kids.”

For more coverage of this issue, see the following related stories:

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