The attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut has many debating the value of school resource officers — police stationed at individual schools, as suggested by the NRA.
But in Schenectady, the debate has moved beyond protection to a wider issue: Should police be involved in student infractions?
The national debate has focused on the idea of police as protectors, stationed to keep out those who might start a massacre. In reality, though, school resource officers are primarily used to maintain order within the school, among students who are supposed to be there, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.
Schenectady eliminated its SROs in budget cuts in recent years, but school officials still call police frequently. Those calls have been the subject of much debate.
Some parents have complained that police are called too often for minor matters. The most common arrest: suspended students charged with trespassing for coming into school to chat with friends.
Out of 63 cases in the last school year, only 17 involved allegations of a crime. And only five of those arrests involved a fight, according to records released under a Freedom of Information Law request. The rest almost entirely involved suspended students.
Spring has reservations about having police in the schools. Although school officials call them when necessary, he doesn’t plan to budget for full-time school resource officers.
He admitted officers in the schools would respond to problems faster and could foster “a good trusting relationship with police.” But, he said, they would also be dragged into adolescent disciplinary issues.
“If an officer is going to interview a 15-year-old around a set of circumstances, another word for that is interrogate,” Spring said.
Police must follow certain rules in those cases, including notifying parents, but school officials don’t have to call parents before asking students whether they took a missing iPod.
“Where I’ve seen the line get blurred is a principal is going to interview a student but a police officer is going to be present,” Spring said.
Parents don’t get called, but the police officer might choose, based on the student’s answers, to make an arrest.
“We cannot ever forget, as a school we operate in loco parentis,” Spring said, explaining that school officials must protect children just as their parents would — instead of turning them over to police without proper advice or representation.
And, he said, police aren’t always needed for offenses that would be considered criminal among adults.
“Our mission is to teach kids to behave better,” he said. “What might be a theft might also be, ‘Hey, knock it off, give that back. I’m giving you a ride home and I’m going to make sure your parents know about this.’ ”
But he emphasized that he works “hand in hand” with police when students do cross the line.
“If a couple of 18-year-olds lie in wait and ambush a kid to take the money he brought with him to buy a yearbook, that’s pretty clearly criminal behavior,” he said.
As for safety, he echoed what many other school leaders have said: Sandy Hook’s lockdown procedures, which are also followed in Schenectady, saved many children. Most of the students at Sandy Hook were unharmed because teachers knew how to lock down their classrooms and hide their students.
Unfortunately, their only warning to initiate lockdown was the sound of gunfire as the shooter killed 20 students and six adults. Those victims never got a warning.
Spring said he took heart from the fact that the lockdown worked for the rest of the students.
“Our schools are safe places,” he said. “It’s a relatively isolated incident.”
Having police at every elementary school wouldn’t ensure perfect safety, he said. The officer cannot be at every door at all times.