What’s in a press release?
Not enough, according to Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty.
Responding to a press release from Morris Township, Dougherty on Friday countered with a statement reassuring residents that public schools in Morristown are protected by special police officers — just like schools in Morris Township. The schools all are part of the regional Morris School District.
Township police issued a press release on Thursday saying the Township and the District were pleased to announce the hiring of six retired police officers to patrol the Frelinghuysen Middle School and the Normandy Park, Hillcrest, Sussex Avenue, Alfred Vail and Woodland schools.
Dougherty said Morristown was “ahead of the curve,” stationing an officer at Morristown High School since 2011. This week, he noted, special officers have been assigned to the Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson schools in Morristown.
“It’s unfortunate that the District chose to omit that fact in their release yesterday,” said the mayor, who said he fielded a few calls from concerned residents.
“Our children are our most precious asset and their safety is of the utmost importance.”
“This is all one community–we share a common school district,” Dougherty told Morristown Green. “Why we were omitted from that release by the school district and the Township, I don’t know. But I think an explanation from the superintendent is in order.”
The press release came from the Morris Township governing body, said District Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast, who posed for a photo with the new Township special officers.
Schools in both municipalities opened this week with special officers in place, he said, noting the District has been communicating about these security matters for some time.
“Mayors of both towns were at our security forum last year,” Pendergrast said. “We worked with each town — Morristown and Morris Township — to hire Class II and Class III officers. Morris Township sent out a press release.”
Morris Township Police Chief Mark DiCarlo, who sent Thursday’s release, said he did not wish to provoke controversy by discussing it.
“As Morris Township Police Chief, I am responsible for the safety and security of my community and the effectiveness and efficiency of the police department. I am not a political figure and therefore will not comment in regards to the feelings of the Morristown Mayor,” DiCarlo said via email.
All these new special officers are considered employees of the police force that hired them, but they are paid by the Morris School District. The District budgeted nearly $500,000 for them earlier this year, among other measures to tighten security in the wake of the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
They are retired law enforcement officers authorized to carry weapons.
Township Mayor Peter Mancuso, who also posed with the new Township officers, said he was under the impression Morristown had not yet hired special officers for its schools within the District. He referred questions to Township Administrator Tim Quinn.
Bristling at Dougherty’s release, Quinn said Morristown officials “never gave us the courtesy” of advance notice before issuing a statement related to burglaries in the Township.
Quinn, the former Township police chief, cited the different classifications of special officers deployed by the two municipalities.
Township specials are designated as Class III, which means they only can be assigned to schools. Morristown’s are Class II, which enables them to be used more widely but limits them to less than 40 hours per week, he said.
The distinction won’t make a difference for school coverage and student safety, Pendergrast said. Class II officers give Morristown flexibility to use them at times when schools are closed, Dougherty said. Morristown Police Chief Pete Demnitz could not be reached for comment.
Morristown School Resource Officer Deanna Dietrich has been assigned to Morristown High School for seven years. Special Officer Mark McGuiness started this week at the Alexander Hamilton School and Special Officer Stan Witzcak now patrols the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
McGuinness and Witzcak are former Township police officers, according to Dougherty.