Linden Officers Connect With Students While Providing Security for Schools

A program to keep Linden Public Schools students and staff safe is expanding with the hiring of retired police officers to provide security and McManus and Soehl middle schools.

Officials say Officer Joe Walsh is working at Soehl and Officer George Allard is at McManus. Both started on Nov. 12 as part of a partnership between Linden Public Schools and the Linden Police Department.

“Nothing is so vitally important to us as the safety of our staff and students,” said Interim Superintendent Denise Cleary. “We are very happy to welcome Officers Allard and Walsh into our Linden Public Schools family.

Their experience and training will help assure the security of our schools, while their eagerness to work with students will make them outstanding role models as well.”

Walsh and Allard are part of the Special Law Enforcement Officer Class III program. A shared-services agreement approved in 2018 by the Board of Education and the City Council. New Jersey established the SLEO Class III position in 2016.

Only retired law enforcement officers are eligible for the position, which authorizes them, on a part-time basis, to provide security on school premises.

“The SLEO Class III program is an extension of the continued cooperation we have with the Linden Police Department,” Cleary said. “We are grateful for all they do to support Linden Public Schools and treasure that partnership.”

The officers work exclusively in the school during school hours or functions, but are hired by the Police Department with input from the school district, and report to Police Chief David Hart.

“Officers Walsh and Allard were selected from a number of very qualified applicants because of their extensive experience and exemplary records of service,” Hart said.

“Their professionalism and compassion make them a natural fit in our schools and we are very pleased to welcome them to our Linden Police Department family.”

Allard and Walsh know security is their primary role, but they also want to make a connection with students to help them through tough situations and offer a positive image of police officers.

The SLEO Class III program in Linden now has four officers. Walsh and Allard join Officers Keith Aslin at Linden High School and Ed Chabak at School No. 2, the district’s largest elementary school.

Aslin works closely with Linden High School Resource Officer Detective Leon Paster, who is part of the LPD’s Juvenile Aid Bureau.

Allard grew up in Elizabeth and spent 23 years with the Union County Police Department before retiring as a lieutenant this past August. Before joining the force, he spent four years in the Army, including a tour in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

“I know what this position is and why it was created,” he said. “I’m here to protect them and obviously the staff as well, but I’m also here trying to make a connection with the kids. I want to be friendly, not just be seen as a guy who stands against a wall. Proactive, approachable. If they want to sit down and talk to me for 15 or 20 minutes or whatever.”

On his second day in the job, Allard ran into a situation where a student was upset, and taking a hard line could have made the situation worse.

“She was having a bad day. I get it,” he said. “So I said, ‘Let’s just restart the day. Don’t worry about it. We’ll make it work.’ And she gave me a chance.”

McManus students have been asking Allard a lot of questions since he started.

“A lot of them ask, ‘Why are you here?’” he said. “And that’s a good thing because I get to tell them, ‘I’m here to protect YOU.’ I’m not here because there are bad kids and they think we need to put a cop here. My first week here, the California shooting happened. I said, ‘That’s why I’m here. I’m here to protect you guys.’ I want them to see that I’m here for them. And that’s the truth.”

Allard tries to get to know the students in the hallways, giving out high fives and fist bumps, and using humor to break the ice.

“You have to joke around with them,” he said. “I think that laughing is something that opens that door.”

He also took part in a recent ice cream event, buying tickets to make sure that some of the students he has gotten to know got to take part.

“So I gave them ice cream for the day,” Allard said. “I want this program to be seen as successful. You have to really become part of the environment here.

“It’s not going to work if you’re just a guy who stands against the wall with a gun.”

Walsh grew up in Jersey City and was a Hudson County corrections officer for three years before joining Jersey City police in 1993. He spent many years as a plainclothes officer and detective before retiring this past July as a sergeant in charge of the Special Investigations Unit.

His new post at Soehl is a lot different than his years on the street in Jersey City.

“It’s not about locking people up. This is different,” he said. “You get to talk to them, you get fist bumps in the hallway. The first day I was here, a kid needed a pen.

When I was in Jersey City, the interaction wasn’t always positive because usually, it’s the bad end of policing when we came in contact. But here it’s totally different. You get to hang out and watch them have fun and fool around. It’s fun. It’s enjoyable.”

Walsh has been a youth hockey coach in Jersey City for years, so he’s familiar with working with children at middle school age.

“I love being around the kids,” he said. “They’re at a great age now, where they want to talk to you.”

From the first day, Walsh was welcomed into the Soehl family.

“There’s not one staff member here that I don’t get a hello from,” he said. “‘How are you doing? How was your weekend?’ In the beginning, it was new. I didn’t know the building, and I’m not very familiar with Linden. But they were excellent from the minute I started. Everything I asked for. The security escorted me around, taught me all the nooks and crannies. It’s a big school when you’re not used to it. But they treated me like gold.”

Students weren’t sure at first what to make of seeing Walsh in uniform around the school.

“They didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “ ‘The cops are here, is there something bad?’ But now they’re getting used to me. They know I’m here for security for them. I’m not here to stop them from running in the hallway. I’m not here to make sure their hat is off. But they see me and they respect me.

“It’s a different atmosphere than what I’m used to, but I enjoy it.”