Collingswood schools chief: Calling police on kids not our idea

The meeting was prompted by an incident earlier this spring at Collingswood High School, when administrators reported student misconduct after a delay of a few hours.

Collingswood School Superintendent Scott Oswald said Thursday that Camden County prosecutors had demanded in a May meeting that the district report nearly every incident of student misbehavior to the police.

"During that meeting, it was made abundantly clear by an assistant prosecutor that if we did not follow the directive, they would come after us with criminal charges, they'd come after our educational certifications," Oswald said.

Since that meeting, students as young as 7 have been reported to the police for incidents such as shoving in the lunch line or allegedly making a racist comment.

Previously, Collingswood, following the state's Memorandum of Agreement Between Education and Law Enforcement Officials, only reported school incidents it deemed serious, like those involving weapons, drugs, or sexual misconduct.

The May 25 meeting, called by the Prosecutor's Office, changed that standard to include incidents "as minor as a simple name-calling incident," Collingswood Police Chief Kevin Carey said.

Carey, Mayor James Maley, Oswald, and two other school administrators met with three representatives from the Prosecutor's Office at the Collingswood Community Center. Oswald said he and other district officials immediately objected to the new policy, but were rebuffed and threatened by the Prosecutor's Office.

Prosecutor Mary Eva Colalillo declined to comment on Thursday.

Carey said he could not recall any threats being made, but said the representatives from the Prosecutor's Office explained "the fact that violation of the MOA could result in criminal charges."

Maley acknowledged that there had been "questioning" of the directive by school officials, and said there was an "inference" that "if you don't follow the MOA, you can get jammed up." But he said he did not interpret anything said during the meeting as a threat.

Maley announced Tuesday that the heightened reporting standard was the result of a "misunderstanding." That procedural change has been reversed, he said.

The meeting was prompted by an incident this spring at Collingswood High School, when administrators reported student misconduct after a delay of a few hours, Maley said. But that incident was not raised at the meeting, according to Maley and Oswald.

The Gloucester County and Burlington County Prosecutor's Offices have not issued a similar directive to schools under their jurisdictions.

Oswald said he and other school representatives presented a handful of scenarios at the May 25 evening meeting - "ridiculous things, like kindergarten playground shoving matches" - that they did not feel required police involvement. In each case, the Prosecutor's Office representatives told them they should contact law enforcement, he said.

Oswald said he understood that if school officials disobeyed, "our livelihood is threatened."

"After that meeting, we did exactly as we were told," he said. Oswald communicated the prosecutors' instructions to principals at a meeting that week. Principals then briefed their staffs.

Following the directive meant making far more frequent phone calls to police, Carey said. Since those calls began, parents have voiced outrage, with some faulting the Prosecutor's Office in particular.

Even parents whose children have not been directly affected said they are upset that police have been handling incidents usually dealt with by the school. Many have demanded a public meeting, apologies from officials involved, and even resignations.

There are no plans for a public meeting until the school board next gathers on Aug. 29.

Maley said he hopes to meet soon with those who attended the May meeting to discuss communication failures over the last month. But Oswald said such a meeting would be fruitless if prosecutors - who he said continue to ignore school officials' emails, calls, and voice mails - do not attend.

"We have to get together in a room and talk," Oswald said. "I am available today, tomorrow, Fourth of July, 2 a.m., I don't care. But I can't meet alone."

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Staff writer Michael Boren contributed to this article.