Days after a suicidal teen with a fake handgun tried to provoke police outside an township elementary school, Evesham Mayor Randy Brown on Wednesday pressed a recommendation to increase the number of armed police officers in elementary and middle schools.
"Considering what has been going on in the world today, the best line of defense is having an armed officer in every school," Brown said.
Three armed officers now patrol the township's seven elementary and two middle schools on a rotating basis, though none was present at Van Zant Elementary School during Monday's incident. No one was injured.
The boy, apprehended by off-duty state troopers who had been planning to pick up their children at the school, told investigators he wanted to force officers to shoot him in a suicide attempt, police said.
Brown said he wants to increase the number of officers from three to nine so one is at each school at all times. Police said they support that, and the district said it was willing to hear the recommendation. There already is a full-time police presence at Cherokee High School.
Brown, while calling for the heightened presence, declined to say whether the incident could have played out differently if an armed officer had been at the school.
"Monday's situation is irrelevant," Brown said. "I've been calling for this for three years," he said, referring to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, in which a gunman killed 20 children in December 2012.
At Van Zant, two parents saw the boy with the replica weapon - which the parents thought was real - outside the school just before 3:50 p.m. Monday. One parent alerted school officials, while the other told her husband, a state trooper.
He then called two other off-duty troopers who were on their way to pick up their children at the school, police said. The two troopers found the teenager near the school's basketball courts and tackled him as arriving Evesham police officers searched the area for additional threats.
Authorities said they do not believe the boy wanted to harm anyone at the school. Most students had left for the day, but the school went on lockdown for the remaining teachers and after-school clubs inside.
The boy, who was not a student at Van Zant and whose name was not released, was taken to a mental-health facility for evaluation. He is facing charges of aggravated assault, unlawful possession of a weapon, terroristic threats, and trespassing. Police were trying to determine how the boy obtained the fake weapon.
Evesham Police Chief Christopher Chew said that his officers began patrolling the elementary and middle schools this year, and that the department was planning to add a fourth officer to the shifts. Brown said the township and school district split the $100,000 cost.
Chew said each of the officers spends an hour to two at one building before moving to another, meaning some schools - such as Van Zant on Monday afternoon - don't have an officer present at certain times.
The officers, who are part-time, wear khakis and a polo shirt with the department's seal and have arrest powers. They walk through the hallways, talk to teachers and students, and park police cruisers outside the buildings.
Two armed officers also patrol Cherokee High. They are full-time, wear uniforms, and patrol only that school.
Chew said that students can confide in the officers, and that their presence deters criminals from entering the buildings - which is why Chew said he supports increasing the number of armed officers in Evesham schools.
"To me it's a no-brainer," he said.
Addressing the concern of having someone with a weapon in a school, Chew said the officers are trained in using firearms.
"It's just not a security guard that you're getting off an armed truck," he said.
John Scavelli Jr., superintendent of the Evesham Township School District, said in a statement after the Van Zant incident that he was proud of how school officials handled the lockdown, which he called "a very difficult situation."
"Regarding adding more armed officers in the schools," he said, "the Evesham Township School District is always willing to listen and consider anything that would benefit the well-being of our students and staff."
Other districts' security efforts vary. In Washington Township, two armed officers patrol the schools. In Cherry Hill, armed officers are not permanently assigned to the schools, but make daily and random checks of the buildings, police said.