Student safety tops Cherry Hill board meeting

Cherry Hill High School East junior Evan Rothkoff, 16, is applauded as he completes his testimony before the Cherry Hill school board meeting March 6, 2018. He spoke in support of his AP World History teacher, Timothy Locke, who was suspended last month.

In the aftermath of a tumultuous public meeting last week on school safety, the Cherry Hill Board of Education faced the community again Tuesday night and dealt with a much smaller audience that was partly satisfied with new security measures now in place.

Meeting at Cherry Hill High School West, the board also listened to more impassioned pleas to reinstate a popular high school teacher who raised concerns about safety following the Valentine’s Day shooting rampage at a Florida school. The board then went into executive session and was not expected to take any official action afterward.

The Parkland, Fla., school shooting, in which 17 people were killed, has made school security an immediate concern for students and parents in communities across the country.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Cherry Hill parent Chris Benedetto addresses the board meeting.

On Friday, Cherry Hill Township officials said armed police officers would be assigned full-time to schools starting this week. All visitors will have to make appointments and bring photo identification before entering the schools.

Between seven and 10 armed officers would be deployed to the district’s 19 schools until at least the end of the school year on June 19, said Mayor Chuck Cahn. The district has about 11,300 students in grades K-12.

Cahn said the police chief and township officials made the offer to the district and school officials accepted it.

 

While the addition of armed officers was welcomed, some parents Tuesday night said they wanted to see more steps taken.

Eric Satterthwaite, a father of two students, recalled growing up in a “very rough and tumble” West Philadelphia and attending Overbrook High School.

“What my children experience is very different than my experience,” Satterthwaite told the board. But for children in the city, he said, “the one place they are safe is their schools.”

Philadelphia schools have metal detectors and the schools in Cherry Hill need them, he added.

“People [in Cherry Hill] have to get over the stigma of what that means,” he said.

Sheila Dixey was one of several parents thanking the board for bringing police into the schools.

“I felt so safe the first morning when I dropped my kid off and saw a police car,” Dixey said. “I hope it will continue beyond June.”

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Pat McCargo, a grandmother of Cherry Hill students, asks members to be cautious with how police interact with minority students.

Pat McCargo, an African American woman who has grandchildren in the district and whose husband served on the school board, said she had been asked by other parents to advise the board to be cautious with how armed officers in schools interact with minority students and to make sure those officers do not regard young black and Hispanic students as “target practice.”

The school board previously had decided against having armed officers in schools. The board had hired two unarmed resource officers for each of its two high schools. The resource officers are certified to carry weapons and the board may decide to authorize them to do so, a district spokeswoman said.

Beginning this week, all family members of students were required to present photo identification and the student identification numbers of their children before they were admitted to the schools.

The controversy over school safety was fueled by Cherry Hill High School East teacher Timothy Locke, who questioned whether security at his school was adequate after the Parkland massacre.

He was placed on administrative leave after his comments, which he made in class, were reported to district officials. That sparked a student backlash in Cherry Hill for the popular Advanced Placement history teacher.

This story has been changed to reflect that the views Pat McCargo expressed were those of other parents who asked her to convey them.