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As educators, lawmakers focus on school safety, some districts eye resource officers

As educators, lawmakers focus on school safety, some districts eye resource officers

'It helps keep people sharp, it helps calm people down in crisis situations'
As educators, lawmakers focus on school safety, some districts eye resource officers
Saratoga County sheriff's deputy Ken Cooper is the director of community preparedness and youth services.
Photographer: Erica Miller

Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy C.J. Rust walks his beat inside the halls of Amsterdam High School, where he graduated in 2010 and now serves as the school’s armed protector.

He meets with administrators, discussing specific concerns if necessary, assists in training and drills, patrols schools entrances, visits health and other classes, and meets with students in his office and around the school.

Part of the job is also being ready for the worst. Rust spends time working with the district and law enforcement officials to fine-tune how to respond to the most serious of emergencies — with Rust at the spearhead of an active-shooter response.

If he ever had to respond to a school shooting, Rust said he would first get the school into lockdown, then notify the sheriff’s department for backup, then check to make sure students and school staff were safe, and then look to “engage or eliminate” the active shooter.

“When I signed up to do this job, someday a police officer may have to put himself on the line for someone else’s life," Rust said. "That’s what we know going into these jobs, it’s other people’s safety."

Rust said he “150 percent” thinks that positions like his that stations the same officers in schools on a daily basis would make all schools safer — an issue that has been stirred up in recent weeks following another deadly school shooting and a call from the New York State Sheriffs’ Association to find state funds to put armed officers in all of the state’s thousands of schools.

“I believe there is a need for school resource officers all across the nation,” Rust said in an interview Friday, when he spent the snow day on routine patrols, assisting struggling drivers and at accidents.

National attention

In the wake of a Florida school shooting last month, local districts have started to increase security measures alongside law enforcement and students and families have pressed district leaders to do even more. Student activists are starting to organize walkouts and other political events in the coming weeks. A wave of non-credible threats at schools last week infused stress and uncertainty into classes as local students returned from a weeklong break. Police say they have to respond to all threats as though they are serious.

The Florida shooting has once again flared national attention on school safety and broader gun issues. President Donald Trump's various and shifting policy positions — from arming teachers in classrooms to taking guns away from people before demonstrating in court they aren’t fit to possess them — and the political activism of the shooting’s survivors has spurred new dimensions to the debates.

The school safety conversation going forward will be much broader than school resource officers — the state Council of Superintendents was meeting in Albany for an annual meet, with safety sure to be on the agenda — but increasing the presence of police in and around schools is sure to be at the center of many school safety discussions.

A survey of area districts shows that only a handful of them already have school resource officers well established at schools, primarily at high schools. Saratoga Springs has Saratoga police officers stationed in the district as well as retired police in unarmed staff security positions. Deputy Rust mans the halls of Amsterdam High School. Colonie police Officer Patrick Germaine works from Colonie Central High School.

“Our school board has made it a priority for well over 15 years,” South Colonie Central School District assistant superintendent David Perry said of a trio of officers — one stationed at the high school and two others who patrol either side of the district, working in the middle schools, running the DARE program and dropping into elementary schools. The district splits the cost of the officers with the town of Colonie, picking up $40,000 of the cost for the three officers’ time, according to the district.

“It helps keep people sharp, it helps calm people down in crisis situations,” said Perry, adding that Colonie has kept the district’s cost flat over the years, easing the financial burden on the district. “It’s well worth the economic cost.”

What schools do

Outside New York City, statewide less than 35 percent of schools last year reported “having a police officer or other safety officer” present at school on a regular basis, according to the state Education Department. Those numbers cover more than just school resource officers — so even fewer schools would report having an armed law enforcement officers in school.

Some districts had officers inside their schools on a more regular basis, but state funding dried up more than five years ago. Niskayuna stopped having a school resource officer in 2008, district spokesman Matt Leon said last week.

Schenectady police officers were stationed at the high school until 2011. Last week, Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said those officers hadn’t really played the role of what he considers a school resource officer. “A school resource officer: They are not there as an armed law enforcement officer, they are there about education,” Spring said.

Spring said police play three major roles with the district: planning for, working to prevent and responding to an emergency; sharing information about particular students; and serving as academic resources about the role of police in the community.

It’s hard for a single person to play all of those roles, Spring said, pointing to the sometimes conflicting responsibilities of officers positioned in schools. If he were strictly planning to maximize the effectiveness of a police officer on school grounds responding to an immediate threat, he would position them in a different way than if he wants to utilize them to interact with students in an educational setting, Spring said.

He said he worries if a cop in school program isn’t smart about how the role in officer plays in a school building, it risks pitting officers against students in a way that reinforces negative perceptions.

“Absent some strong intentional thinking around those things, what cops in schools programs oftentimes have as a side effect is the criminalization of kids’ basic behavior,” he said. “It’s really hard to say it’s purely good or bad. … A lot of good can come from it with a lot of planning and attention.”

Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo said he has heard from five superintendents in the past weeks that are interested in pursuing a way to get a school resource officer in schools. In the weeks since the Florida shooting, the sheriff has increased patrols at schools in the county, saying patrolling deputies now stop and spend time in all schools across the county — excluding Saratoga Springs schools covered by city police. But the increased patrols and in-school appearance still fall short of the presence envisioned with school resource.

Zurlo said he is looking into ways to support an expansion of officers in schools and what he would have to ask districts to pay under different scenarios. Police presence can be increased in a variety of ways, from placing an officer full time in a specific school to having multiple deputies assigned to patrols that devote more time specifically to work in schools. He said he hopes to have something more substantial in place by the start of next school year.

“We’re not there yet,” Zurlo said of moving toward more officers in county schools. “I would hope the state or federal level would come up with some money.”

A focus on mental health

Educators widely point to mental health services as the true front line of fighting back against school gun violence. Calling for more funding for social workers and therapeutic approaches to behavioral problems, district officials discuss the importance of developing a stronger mental health safety net for all students.

School design is another key component of safety. While some schools in recent years have been upgraded as part of capital projects to have highly secured entrances, other schools have entrances that give visitors easier and more immediate access to the rest of the school building.

Starting next school year, districts will be mandated to include more mental health matters into their health curriculum, an effort to help students become more aware of the social and emotional strains and stresses in their lives.

Schenectady schools recently hired a psychiatric nurse practicioner to head up a team of social workers and counselors housed in an isolated wing of Keane Elementary School and charged with handling serious student cases from around the district.

When a group of eighth- and ninth-graders last week urged Niskayuna school district officials to make safety improvements, Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. highlighted one student’s comments about caring for each other as a community as the most salient. The freshman said it was critical for students and educators to identify the students at risk of falling through the cracks and becoming more and more isolated.

"Not to send them away but to give them support, love and affection before they reach their breaking point and it's too late," freshman Rohan Menon said at a school board meeting last week.

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