In 2023, schools across Warren County have doubled down on their security measures in the wake of national news about school shootings. Frelinghuysen Elementary is the latest school to bring security to campus.
Trooper I V. Cabrera-Bonilla, nicknamed “Brown Bear” by both children and adults, will be Frelinghuysen’s new School Resource Officer. He’s a state trooper– specifically, a member of the School Security Unit of the New Jersey State Police.
Never heard of that unit before? You’re not alone. The unit officially formed this past March, according to Sgt. James Bambara, who recently sat down with the Ridge View Echo to explain the formation and operations of the new unit.
Throughout the state, the School Security Unit covers 113 schools in towns where the state police act as the primary law enforcement presence. Sgt. Bambara is the North Squad Leader of Troop B, the northern region of New Jersey that encompasses over 2,800 miles north of I-78.
Troop B covers 36 schools, including 14 within Warren County.
“A lot of people don’t realize that this unit exists,” Bambara said.
In part, this is because the tasks of the School Security Unit were until recently assigned to the Outreach Unit. Like the School Security Unit, the Outreach Unit placed School Resource Officers (SRO) in schools, evaluated school drills and safety measures, and gave presentations to students and parents.
When the Outreach Unit shifted to focus its attention on outreach events and community reconnection, this left room for the formation of the new School Security Unit.
Another reason for the unit’s relative anonymity is that its duties often go unseen– by design.
Troopers are most visible when they’re on the grounds during the regular school day. Many of their other responsibilities take place after hours or in private conversations with school staff.
“We do walkthroughs,” Bambara said. “We’re doing site assessments where we go out and look at the structure, at the school’s procedures. We evaluate and give them recommendations based on those visits.”
In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting and the shootings that have happened since, school officials have explored different means for bringing security staff to schools. The choice of preference is to bring in an SRO, an active police officer with role-specific training assigned full-time to protect public schools.
But that option can be expensive and difficult for towns with smaller police forces that can’t spare the manpower.
In late 2016, New Jersey created the position of the Class Three Special
Law Enforcement Officer (SLEO) so that school districts have another option for hiring security personnel.
A Class Three SLEO is a retired police officer under the age of 65 who must
complete the same training as an SRO and reports to the local police chief.
Both roles act as security personnel on school grounds, Bambara explained.
There are some small but important differences– for example, as an active police officer, an SRO must meet the standard of probable cause in order to conduct investigations. As an employee of the school, a Class Three SLEO officer need only meet the standard of reasonable suspicion.
And there are key differences in funding, salary, and the entity responsible for insurance coverage. In the end, both officer types work toward the same goal: increasing security and safety in schools.
Previously, Sgt. Bambara worked as an SRO for seven and a half years. He remembers that the biggest thing he had to learn in the role was the aspect of education over time.
“It’s more like a mentorship role,” he said. “You start to form these relationships with the students. If they might take a second to cool down, you don’t mind giving them a minute or two just to take a breath and relax… you let them come off that anxiety or let them come off that anger… and then speak to them about what’s going on.”
In fact, much of the conversation about school security has shifted toward the language of emotion and unmet needs. SRO training encourages officers to look for signs that might point to a negative home environment, isolation, mental health struggles, or other issues that, if ignored, might escalate in young people who have limited resources or coping strategies for finding help.
There’s evidence to suggest that this perspective could help prevent school violence.
“A lot of it is behavioral,” Bambara said. “Had an active shooter just received counseling or, you know, had any type of community involvement, or those tie-ins to sports or other clubs… the theory is that things might not have turned out the way they did.”
SROs work in partnership with school staff and community partners to address these needs before they have a chance to escalate into more desperate or violent behavior.
In Troop B’s coverage zone, partners have included the mental health resources at Newton Medical Center, Saint Clare’s Health, and Project Self-Sufficiency.
Recent legislation has mandated the creation of a school-based behavioral threat assessment team at every public school. State guidance recommends that an SRO or other member of security personnel be a member of this team.
As a new structure, the office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning within the New Jersey Department of Education has not yet provided exact guidelines about how these teams will determine their criteria or move ahead once those criteria are met. But from what he can see, the idea is a collaborative
partnership meant to involve all aspects of a school community to identify and meet students’ unmet needs, Bambara said.
“As far as behavioral threat assessment, it starts at the school level, and then it kind of expands from there to the next levels of… what can be provided to assist the child.”
Though NJ State Police have seen about the same incidence of school violence as they have in the past, Bambara agrees that national headlines have increased awareness and a sense of urgency about school safety.
That’s led to a largely appreciative reception from the public, he said. “[People] like seeing us around as… one of those necessary evils. But as far as seeing a
police officer in school, overall, I think it has been a positive public response,” he said.
Some critics have expressed fears that police presence can intimidate students or lead to harsher punishments for harmless infractions.
For those uncertain about police presence in schools, Bambara said, “it’s a conversation. It’s talking to community leaders, it’s talking to community members, just going out on the street and understanding that… we might have children ourselves that go to that school. Obviously, we want that to be a safe place. And if the kids aren’t safe, they’re not learning.”
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.