PLEASANTVILLE NJ Feb 11 2017 — The local school district’s state monitor has overturned the school board’s decision not to fire a longtime school security guard for allegedly using excessive force that left marks on a student’s throat.
School monitor Constance Bauer said in her Jan. 19 letter to the board that based on her review of the evidence, termination of Terry Barnes was appropriate.
“Promoting safety for students is a paramount public interest,” Bauer’s letter says, “and on occasions when I believe the board’s actions may be inconsistent with this fundamental principle, as state monitor I will take such actions under review.”
The Press of Atlantic City obtained the letter through an Open Public Records Act request with the state Department of Education. Parts of it are redacted.
The termination highlights the delicate balance school security face when doing their jobs.
Barnes was listed for termination on the agenda of the Jan. 17 school board meeting. During the public portion of the meeting, Linda Henderson, speaking on behalf of the security staff, said they get training in how to restrain students, but then get in trouble when they do their job.
“You are not sending a good message,” she told the board. “If a child is a danger, we must passively restrain. First, we try to talk them down, but if a child can’t contain themselves, then we must restrain. There is no intent to harm. We are the first people to come when there is a problem. You can’t punish us for doing our job.”
Barnes sat in the audience at the meeting. He said did not hurt the child and did not know he was in trouble until he was called to the human resources office and told he was suspended pending termination. He said he had worked in the district for 15 years.
He and union representative Jean Hovey also met privately with the board during closed session.
After the closed session, the board split its votes, with members James Barclay, Bernice Couch and Carla Thomas voting yes to termination, Lawrence “Tony” Davenport and Richard Norris voting no, and Ethel Seymore and Elysa Sanchez abstaining. Sharnell Morgan was absent. Norris said not enough information was available to make a decision.
Bauer’s letter said her review included the investigative report of the Dec. 1 incident that included interviews and photographs of the victim. She said information was given to the board during the closed session.
She said Barnes was also suspended in 2011 following a physical altercation with a student.
Lt. Patrick Kissane, a Fort Lee police captain and executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Resource Officers, said he has done training in Pleasantville and understands the district’s challenges. He was not involved in the Barnes incident, and does not know the circumstances, but said the job of school security is very difficult.
“I do a lot of internal affairs investigations, and the information can be conflicting,” he said. “There are people who use excessive force, but defining it can be very subjective.”
He said while security’s job is to protect students, sometimes that means having to physically intercede. He said he would want to know the circumstances of the incident, the district’s use-of-force policy and what training security has, especially in trying to de-escalate an incident before interceding.
“These are just regular people doing a tough job,” he said. “They are not law enforcement. It would not shock me if a security guard over a 10-year career had to use force more than once.”
He said it is also important that security learn how to write incident reports that include all information that could be pertinent if there is an investigation. He said students can injure themselves or others in an incident and that should be properly documented.
Hovey said they plan to appeal the decision.
The Press of Atlantic City