At least seven Saratoga County school districts will have sheriff’s deputies stationed full-time in their schools for the next school year under a new school program announced Thursday by Sheriff Michael Zurlo.
Zurlo was joined by administrators from Shenendehowa, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Ballston Spa and other area districts, as he explained how concerns from parents, students and educators in the wake of a February school massacre in Florida prompted him and district officials to hash out plans to formalize a resource officer program.
“Even students, when I’ve been at events, students come up to me: ‘What are you going to do to protect us?’” Zurlo said.
While the sheriff’s office is still working out agreements with individual districts, agreements Zurlo said he hopes to finalize in the coming weeks, districts had set aside funding for resource officers and other safety improvements in budgets approved by voters this week.
Mechanicville and Stillwater, both of which are joining the program, set aside $90,000 to fund a single resource officer, though the final cost has yet to be determined. The new school officers will be recruited from the Sheriff’s Department's existing ranks, Zurlo said, and the department will hire new deputies to fill the positions vacated.
The school officers will wear a variety of hats, from helping district officials fine-tune safety plans to visiting classes and serving as the first line of defense in the event of a school emergency or attack. But Zurlo and the school officials said the most important role will be to strengthen relationships between police and students and the broader school community.
“It’s about interacting with the kids,” Zurlo said, acknowledging that youths don’t always view police in the best light. “We need to get this relationship back.”
Washington County Sheriff Jeffrey Murphy will conduct a 40-hour school resource officer training course in July, and the Saratoga County deputies selected for the program will participate. The training will teach the officers about interacting with students, working in classrooms, dealing with social media and the complexities of carrying a gun in a school environment.
School officials will interview the prospective school resource officers as the sheriff and districts zero in on the best fit. Zurlo said many deputies have expressed interest in the positions, and he plans to have the school officers ready to start their new assignments by mid-August.
Shenendehowa Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson, who was on hand for the announcement, said he expected the district would have more than just one officer working Shen's sprawling campus. He called the new program a “first step,” but also said the officers will complement, rather than supplant, other safety measures the district is undertaking, such as increased surveillance and tighter policies at entrances and exits.
Robinson said there is also a need for community members, students and families to report suspicious behavior.
“When people are aware of things, they need to relay information,” Robinson said. “When your own child is in trouble, seek help.”
Since the Florida shooting, the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department has increased patrols at schools across the county, positioning deputies in and around schools during arrival, dismissal and at other times of the day. The department also dealt with a wave of violent threats against schools, some of which resulted in student arrests. Zurlo said those threats have tapered off in recent weeks.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School Principal Tim Brunson said he supports the addition of school resource officers and that he was confident the community would support it. He said he looked forward to finding ways for the officers to work with students in health and criminal justice classes. He also said the district has worked on communicating to students that threats, even those done on a lark, would be treated seriously.
“You made statements and threats, and you are going to be held accountable,” Brunson said. “I think that’s an important lesson to learn.”
While the Saratoga program is the first formal countywide school resource officer program established in the region, other districts have worked out deals with local police agencies to expand the presence of officers in schools for the coming school year. Gloversville schools included $150,000 in its budget for school resource officers, and North Colonie had arranged with Colonie police to place an officer in that district next year.
Shenendehowa, Burnt Hills, Niskayuna and other area districts all had school resource officers through 2011 under a state program that positioned state troopers in schools. But the state hasn’t stepped in with more funding since that program closed down, so the officers have since left the schools. Despite efforts by the state sheriff's association and Republican lawmakers, no new funding for school-based officers has materialized – a point Zurlo and the school officials highlighted Thursday.
“Where is the state of New York on this?” Robinson asked. “It’s pretty darn silent.”
School districts involved in the Saratoga County School Resource Officer Program:
- Ballston Spa
- Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake
- South Glens Falls