Schenectady

Schenectady schools, police department seek to expand community engagement officer program

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SCHENECTADY — Nearly four months ago, the Schenectady City School District launched a pilot program alongside the city’s police department that placed a pair of community engagement officers at Schenectady High School. Now, the district’s superintendent is seeking to expand the program. 

Anibal Soler Jr., who has led the district since July, provided an update on the program to the Board of Education this past week, where he sought permission to draft a contract with the city that would expand the program to the district’s three middle schools for up to four years.

Soler said the contract — which has yet to be drafted and must still be approved by the Board of Education — would cover the costs to keep two officers at the high school and place one officer at each middle school who would also be responsible for covering adjacent elementary schools. A floating supervisor position would also be created under the contract, which Soler said would include a provision that would allow the district to terminate the agreement at any point.

The district’s share for the expanded program would be around $300,000 annually, according to Soler, who is hoping to gain approval for the program next month. The city’s police department, which has been covering the costs for the pilot program, will also cover a share of the program, though it’s unclear exactly how much.

Soler introduced the program in November as a way to establish greater relationship between the district and police following the adoption of the city’s state-mandated police reform plan last year that called for the creation of community engagement officers.

“All of it was grounded on relationships,” he said. “All of it.”

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He added that the program has so far been well-received by students and faculty, which he attributed to the careful planning and implementation by the district and police Chief Eric Clifford.

A survey distributed by the district last month to all high school students found that a majority of the 388 respondents have not had any interaction with the officers and that half had no opinion on them being in the high school. There are 2,300 high schoolers in the district.

Instead of wearing traditional uniforms, the two officers — Sgt. Adriel Linyear and Patrol Officer Albert Rivera, a Schenectady High School graduate — dress in more casual clothing making them easier to approach and establish a relationship with, Soler said.

He added that the officers help sign students in at the beginning of the day, are regulars at athletic events, engage students in the hallway and have led a number of student discussions around issues of policing.

The officers are also there to respond to more serious matters, including addressing any threats leveled again the district and responding to emergencies, but are not tasked with disciplining students or enforcing the code of conduct.

“We’re not asking them to come in there and be heavy, we’re asking them to come in there [and] build relationships with kids, let them understand expectations,” he said. “But when something does go bad and we have a lockdown, that day you become the first responder in the building. You let teachers teach and you become that guardian angel in the hallway.”

School districts throughout the region have experienced a number of violent incidents in recent months, including several large fights at Schenectady High School and a stabbing incident at Albany High School last week. At the Greater Amsterdam School District, officials have been grappling with an uptick in behavioral issues, while a string of fights at Ballston Spa High School had a Saratoga County Sheriff officer watching students from a lifeguard chair.

Clifford added that the officers have also completed additional anti-bias training and were vetted by his command staff to ensure they would be suited for the job.

Talks to launch a similar program have been talked about for years but were ultimately scuttled after Clifford said he “wasn’t happy” with the officers who applied. If the program were to be expanded, Clifford said he and his command staff will not appoint someone who doesn’t fit the school.

“I’m not going to allow that to happen as long as I’m the chief and my command staff stands with me on that,” he said.

High School Principal Dennis Green said he had reservations about the program when it was first implemented, pointing to the history of policing and community of colors, but said the two officers have worked hard to become a part of the school community and their absence is noticeable whenever they are not in the building.

“When these gentlemen came on board and I saw that they looked like our children, and the conversations that I held with them — I knew that they would be the right fit,” he said.

Green noted that he could not speak on how future officers in the program would be received, but noted having community engagement officers that look like students in the schools can help change the narrative around policing.

“I think to make a change in anything, it starts with the community,” he said. “The more community members, the more young people that we inspire and empower to become firemen, EMTs and police officers — then we grow our own in all areas of the community.”

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Board members seemed to generally support the program, though several raised concerns about how officers for the program would be selected should the program ultimately be expanded and pointed out that the district has made significant progress when it comes to restorative justice programs, which focuses on finding solutions instead of discipline. 

The district has hired five restorative justice specialists that float between school buildings, but has also added several security officer positions as well.

“I find it interesting that we spent close to a decade removing positions around policing — whether they were safety resource officers or those individuals that were in a more controlling environment and supervising of our hallways — that we’re now adding it back in when we found success in focusing more time and energy on prevention,” said Jamaica Miles, a Board of Education member and co-founder of All of Us, a Black Lives Matter activist group.

Miles said the district must continue to focus on hiring guidance counselors and psychologists and pointed to studies that found better outcomes for students when they have greater access to such resources. She added that work must be done to ensure the needs and concerns of everyone in the community are addressed when it pertains to matters of policing.

The district has a goal of having one counselor for every 250 students, which Miles hopes can be lower.

“I would challenge us to actually try to get that number lower because if we are able to engage with more students in a preventative measure – the goal is that we don’t want officers engaging with our students as much as possible,” she said.

Soler said the district is committed to restorative practices and that he envisions the community engagement officers as another layer of services that students and families can access moving forward. But when it comes to ensuring the safety of students, he said there is work to be done but envisions a world where police in schools are not necessary.

“If we get to the point that we don’t need that, that’s great,” he said. “I don’t have the confidence to say that right now.”

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.  

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