The Brick Township school board president’s stated answer to a question posed by a resident as to why a police officer was posted at a recent board meeting unraveled this week, as a separate discussion of the matter at a township council meeting revealed the true reason the officer was present.
Board President Stephanie Wohlrab, asked by resident Vic Fanelli as to why the March 14 board meeting required the presence of a uniformed officer, replied that: “They were in the area, they stopped by.” Fanelli asked whether there was “a reason” an officer was at the meeting, and Wohlrab answered “no.”
On Tuesday night, during a wider discussion of the police department’s budget and the security of public meetings, the actual reason was stated by Police Chief James Riccio, who told Fanelli the school district administration had requested an officer before the meeting began.
“They thought there would be some unruly parents,” said Riccio, calling the presence of an officer at the meeting a “one time event.”
Fanelli was unsatisfied with Wohlrab’s answer at the March 14 Board of Education meeting. When he asked the same question again during a second public comment period, he was asked by Wohlrab to “respectfully move on.”
“For you, I’ll do it, but in the future, when I ask a question I would like an answer,” said Fanelli. “If you don’t want to tell me the answer, please say, ‘I don’t want to tell you the answer,’ or ‘I can’t tell you the answer.’
“Don’t tell me, ‘she’s here because she just happened to be here,’ because that’s bologna,” he continued. “She doesn’t decide to hang out here for six hours.”
Contacted by Shorebeat about the wide discrepancy between the two explanations for police presence, Wohlrab issued a written statement.
“The presence at last month’s meeting, requested by central administration, emanated from a domestic parent/pupil situation that had escalated at the administration building the day before the public meeting,” Wohlrab wrote. “Erring on the side of caution and safety for all in attendance at our public meeting, the superintendent requested police presence in case the problem resurfaced at the public meeting.”
Fortunately, according to officials, no incidents broke out at the meeting, which was lightly attended.
“In response to an inquiry during the meeting, I thought I made it clear the presence was not in any way related to the public comment policy/procedures at the BOE meeting,” said Wohlrab. “Because the underlying issue was a domestic parent/pupil issue, I did not believe disclosure of the private matter was appropriate or necessary. As administration had hoped, cooler heads prevailed, and the matter was not an issue.”
Wohlrab said there has not been a change in the policy or practice related to police presence at BOE meetings. By contrast, security has been significantly tightened at township council meetings, where attendees must pass through a metal detector and submit to a bag search before entering. Five officers, in total, are now present during council meetings, mirroring the township’s procedures when municipal court hearings are underway.
“There is no current plan to have law enforcement presence at all BOE meetings,” said Wohlrab.
The presence of the officer came at no cost to the school district since it was a one-time request, Wohlrab said.