Mayor Chuck Cahn offers to partner with school district to improve security

Cahn spoke about the township’s thoughts on school security at Tuesday’s Cherry Hill Board of Education meeting.

A standing room only crowd files into the all-purpose room inside the Malberg Administration Building for Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting.

With security thrust into the spotlight following student protests at Cherry Hill High School East earlier this week, township officials are offering to help the school district upgrade its security.

At Tuesday night’s Cherry Hill Board of Education meeting, Mayor Chuck Cahn was one of many who spoke during public comment and offered the township’s assistance in improving security at Cherry Hill Public Schools.

“We came forward today with a statement that we thought it is time for action,” Cahn said. “It is time for something for all of us to do. And we need to do this as a partnership.”

Cahn offered what he called a two-pronged approach to improving school security. He said Cherry Hill Chief of Police William Monaghan has recommended the use of armed police officers as part of a new security plan and called for the district to arm school resource officers as a first step.

“It’s not about money. The township will come up with the money if that’s what we need to do,” Cahn said as the audience applauded.

Cahn also added a comprehensive study needs to be done to tackle the security issues in the district.

“It needs to be comprehensive,” he said. “It needs to be quick. It needs to be done now. We need to do it together as a partnership.”

Security was a major topic of conversation at Tuesday’s meeting, with the majority of speakers addressing the district’s protocols. Students said better school security was also a big reason protests took place at Cherry Hill East on Monday and Tuesday mornings. On those days, students held protests in response to a number of issues, including the placing of history teacher Timothy Locke on administrative leave and concerns about school security.

“Many of us do recognize that some of our outrage has been unfairly focused on administrators, when the source of the problem has been the lack of safety in our district’s 19 schools,” Cherry Hill East junior Gabriela Valladares said.

Most of the community members who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting were critical of the district’s security measures.

“I could walk into that school at any time, ring the doorbell, and say ‘hey, I’m here to give my son his lunch.’ No questions, no one would ask me my ID,” said Frank Gorman, whose son recently graduated from Cherry Hill East.

A Cherry Hill High School West student, Taylor Williams, said many students across the district feel security is a major concern.

“As of right now, the majority of kids do not feel safe in school,” she said. “I don’t even feel safe in my school and that’s a big issue.”

Cherry Hill Public Schools is planning to make security a top priority in its planned bond referendum for October. The school district is planning to include security vestibules, cameras, key access cards and strobe lights for all 19 schools in the referendum. A model for the district’s plans was unveiled last fall at Barclay Early Childhood Center.

Board president J. Barry Dickinson read a statement early in the meeting explaining the district has been having discussions with the Cherry Hill Police Department and township for many months and also discussed how the district plans to make security a priority in the referendum.

“Long-term security enhancements, if recommended by the district, require funding and other resources,” Dickinson said in his statement. “These decisions will be made in the coming months as we build next year’s budget.”

Despite this, some residents felt the district couldn’t wait to implement these measures. Resident Rick Short had spoken to the board at past meetings asking it to implement new security measures immediately. He expressed his displeasure with the board on Tuesday.

“You ignored us,” Short said. “You ignored me and you ignore 11,500 people.”

Sophomore Maggie Balderstone implored the district to take action immediately on security.

“I do understand their is a plan in place for 2020, which is the year I graduate,” she said. “What is being put in place for the years following? The years now? We, as a student body, will not allow the administration to leave us without security.”

Colleen Roth said school security was discussed when she served as Sharp Elementary School’s PTA president in 2012, when the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place. However, she has not seen any changes in protocol.

“The district has had more than enough time,” she said. “The security at our school is little more than a doorbell, a desk, and it’s manned by non-security personnel. Regularly, people have been granted access just by saying their name and carrying nothing more than a lunch bag and they will hold the door open for the person behind them as a matter of courtesy.”

Cherry Hill East senior Lindsey Williams questioned why the district didn’t implement stronger security measures in the past.

“You guys have witnessed Parkland,” Williams said. “You guys have worked here, so you have witnessed Sandy Hook as well. So why is it taking until now to step up and do something?”

Many residents felt the district’s current security plans won’t be enough. Residents asked the district to consider being more strict with identifying guests who enter and leave school and possibly installing metal detectors.

“We need working cameras,” parent Sandra Martinez said. “We need secured entries. We need stricter regulations when entering our schools and we need to consider armed security at every school.”

Residents could hear updates on security in the very near future. Cahn and Meloche said they are scheduled to have a meeting on March 2 to discuss security, and Cahn promised to keep residents in the loop with updates.

“I promise, you will hear a lot more about actions we’re about to take,” he said.