State Trooper Alexander “Chip” Johnstone says attitudes have changed a lot since five years ago, when he got hit with food while in the Sharon Springs Central Schools cafeteria.
As one of 92 uniformed state troopers working as school resource officers in 118 districts statewide, Johnstone is now more likely to have students hug him and follow him down the hall, said district Superintendent Patterson Green.
But it’s not all about hugs. At least 13 districts in the region have troopers handling incidents and counseling students about drugs, alcohol, sexual abuse, suicide, Internet risks and bullying and generally building respect for law and order, according to Trooper George Murphy Jr., school outreach officer for regional state police Troop G.
“This is a proactive approach,” Johnstone said. “This program is an attempt to help the kids who need help and get them on the right track.”
Spared by the budget
Area school officials were pleased to learn Friday that the school troopers will not be reassigned to other duties, as former Gov. Eliot Spitzer had proposed in his executive state budget.
Spitzer had wanted the troopers redeployed to assist local police in high-crime areas under Operation Impact, but Senate and Assembly budget legislation restored the school program this week and Gov. David Paterson has agreed, according to state officials.
“It’s a done deal,” said Duncan Davie, spokesman for Sen. James L. Seward, R-Milford, an advocate of the program.
“There is no [direct] financial impact,” state Budget Division spokesman Jeffrey Gordon said Friday. The troopers were already on the state police payroll but would have been reassigned under the Spitzer plan, he said.
The program began with federal and state funding for several years following the Columbine school shootings in Colorado, but now it’s part of the state police budget, according to Murphy.
There is no local cost to school districts, officials said.
Building community ties
Johnstone’s no stranger to the community. Sharon Springs is his hometown, and he graduated from the local high school in 1983.
“That has a positive impact,” Green said. “He knows what happens on the weekends here, too.”
Local residency is “an extra bonus” Murphy said, but it isn’t required of a trooper volunteering for the program.
While some districts have a trooper on duty every day, Johnstone splits his time with the Duanesburg Central Schools.
“He does a wonderful job, and I value the position greatly,” said Duanesburg Superintendent Christine Crowley. “[Troopers] have the ability to make a connection with kids prior to them getting into a difficult situation,” she said.
Officials in both districts had promoted a letter-writing campaign to push area legislators to keep the school troopers in the state budget.
While Spitzer and others argued that troopers’ time could better be spent in high-crime areas, advocates contend that the program helps prevent crime and builds children’s respect for police.
Green was Sharon Springs’ principal before the position was consolidated into one job when he began as superintendent about two years ago. Without a trooper at the school, the district would need to spend local funds to hire a dean of students to help deal with discipline-related problems, he said.
“I would not be able to do both jobs,” Green said. “[A trooper’s] presence in the building deters a lot of behavior.”
Other districts in the region with troopers assigned are Fonda-Fultonville, Averill Park, Berne-Knox-Westerlo, Shenendehowa, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Ballston Spa, Queensbury, Salem, South Glens Falls as well as Hadley-Luzerne in conjunction with Saratoga Springs schools outside the city.
“It’s one of the most successful programs of the state police,” said Murphy.
On campus, on duty
Police statistics indicate that the armed and uniformed troopers keep busy.
Since the program began in 2000 with 37 troopers in 62 districts, Murphy said they’ve handled a total of 12,864 criminal calls in the school statewide. That includes 1,044 felony arrests, including 52 involving weapons.
School troopers statewide also made 3,895 misdemeanor arrests and 1,423 for more minor violations. There’s a long list of other actions, such as handling 14 fatal auto accidents and 3,932 vehicle, traffic or snowmobile violations.
They’ve also recovered $334,940 of $638,130 in reported stolen property.
While statistics show that numbers of most reported incidents have risen since the program began, that’s partly due to simply having troopers on the scene, according to Murphy.
Some things, such as bomb threats, have declined as troopers and students get to know each other, he said.
“They’re getting to know you’ve got a trooper in that school and it’s going to get investigated,” Murphy said.
The troopers, especially when they’re local residents like Johnstone, also gain a better understanding of local students.
“Now they know not just who the knuckleheads are, they know who the good kids are … and who would know something,” Murphy said.
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