Student resource officers return to township schools

Program expected to change because of COVID-19

Student Resource Officer Tony Leone in the lunchroom of the Washington Township High School last year.

After nearly seven months, students aren’t the only ones making their return to the Washington Township School District. Student Resource Officers are also making their way back, albeit in a different landscape than the one they left in March. 

Due to COVID-19, the SRO program may look different this year compared with previous ones. Some programs might be adjusted to comply with health regulations, including High-5 Fridays. The pandemic has also put the hiring of a sixth SRO officer on hold. 

According to Mayor Joann Gattinelli, once schools reopen with a virtual model on Sept. 21, the police department and township will have an open discussion with the board of education to decide what needs schools may have this year. 

“We are still trying to come to a conclusion or a solution at this point with what we have been dealt,” Gattinelli said. “The program, platform, training and learning is still the same, but we are working towards something new. Now, we just have to find what that is going to be.”

Washington Township Chief of Police Patrick Gurcsik stressed there is nothing more important than the safety and security of the 7,300 students in the district. When he became chief of police in January, 2017, Gurcsik  felt the need to enhance the school resource program and he’s worked on that ever since.

In collaboration with Gattinelli, as well as the township council and the board of education, the chief placed two full-time officers on patrol at the township high school in February of 2017. Officers Tony Leone and Tom DiTullio have been at the high school for almost four years and have created strong relationships with students as well as a safe police presence.

“When I reviewed the SRO program, I was a little surprised that we didn’t have more than one officer, especially with more than a few thousand students just in the high school,” Gattinelli noted.

After the township noticed the success of police efforts and the healthy relationships created between students and officers, the program was expanded.

The police department hired three more officers to patrol the other 10 schools in the district. Officers John Hamilton, Vince Fulginiti and Jason Bilderback retired from full-time positions and were given the responsibility to patrol schools regularly. Bilderback and Fulginiti were both officers from the police department and have a familiarity with the schools, while Hamilton retired from the Gloucester County Sheriff’s Department.

“We look for the right type of person for the job, the right personality, the right sort of traits and characteristics to work with kids,” Gurcsik noted. “It’s not an easy job, and there is a two-week training class to be a school resource officer.”

Resource officers have responsibilities that range from monitoring schools during the day to patrolling with K9 units while students are at recess. At the elementary level and before COVID-19, officers participated in High-5 Fridays, where they would stand outside of a school as the buses arrived in the morning and offer high-5s to students. It was one way to create a positive interaction between students and officers to facilitate healthy and open relationships. Officers also teach a D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program at the fifth-grade level. 

Gurcsik has always believed community caretaking is a priority for the police department, for students and officers to build relationships in order to keep an open line of communication.  

So on Sept. 21, the district’s SRO officers will once again try to build those relationships, from 6 feet apart.