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Districts explore armed alternatives to school resource officers

Districts explore armed alternatives to school resource officers

Rural districts having harder time getting SROs into schools
Districts explore armed alternatives to school resource officers
Meg Messitt, 15, addresses the Saratoga Springs school board on school safety.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

Broadalbin-Perth Central School District wants police officers – state, county, local, from anywhere – to come into their schools, so much so they are offering law enforcement free meals.

The district earlier this month released a video inviting any law enforcement officer to visit one of its two school campuses and sit down to the table with students; the district would pick up the tab, they promised.

“We think it’s a little bit of an added bonus for them to be able to grab a nice breakfast or lunch and sit down and have a conversation with our students,” Superintendent Stephen Tomlinson said last week.

But districts officials aren’t just inviting officers over for lunch. They are also looking to bring a pair of retired police officers onto district staff to serve as armed security, a move that would require special school board authorization.

The district security position in Broadalbin-Perth, which will be a part of budget discussions this winter and spring, is emblematic of a broader debate unfolding in districts across the region, a debate that centers on how best to keep students safe.

Gloversville school officials are even closer to creating a position for an armed district safety officer

Also: School administrators, police grapple with student threats, Nov. 25, 2018

“We’re not there yet, but I think we are getting close,” Gloversville Superintendent David Halloran said in an interview earlier this month. He said he hoped the position would be established by the start of the new calendar year.

“That’s something we are looking for,” Halloran said of creating a district security position to work alongside the active-duty school resource officer already working with the district. “We have five or six campuses and want to be able to have someone who could respond in the worst-case scenario to be able to protect students.”

Active-duty school resource officers proliferated in school districts across the Capital Region this fall, but moving toward arming district personnel has opened a new front in fights over school safety. In Saratoga Springs, a decision this fall to not authorize a force of district grounds monitors to carry firearms – as they had done covertly for decades until last spring – thrust that district into a bitter and contentious debate over whether to arm the monitors, who are former police officers.

One group of a parents was outraged after the board decided not to rearm the grounds monitors, who patrol school grounds and provide security during arrival, dismissal and during afterschool events. Those parents have turned out at recent board meetings, calling on the board to reverse its decision and at times accusing board members of prioritizing an “anti-gun, anti-second amendment” political agenda over student safety – an accusation those board members have roundly rejected.

Another group of parents has supported the board’s decision, arguing the best approach to safety is one that emphasizes mental health and social supports for at-risk students. Those parents have not been as vocal at recent board meetings as parents calling to arm the monitors, but Julie Lewis, a parent who supports the board’s decision, said many parents are expressing their opposition to arming monitors directly to school board members and the district superintendent.

“There are people who are trying to make this a conversation between them and the board and not make a public outcry,” Lewis said. “Our side is trying to go about it in a more civil, quiet and powerful way.”

Lewis argued the district should work to create a more supportive school environment in its effort to improve safety and cited a 2013 state Education Department policy document that said school resources officers should be the only form of armed school personnel and made the point that increasing “hard” security measures like armed security may make students feel less safe.

“There is sort of this false sense of security in arming schools above and beyond what is recommended,” Lewis said.

SROs

Many rural districts, particularly those across Schoharie and Fulton counties, have not yet found the resources or partners necessary to bring an officer into the district – even as district officials in those districts said they are willing to pay for one.

Rural districts like Duanesburg, Cobleskill-Richmondville, Middleburgh, Fort Plain, Schoharie and others don’t have school resources officers yet, but some of those districts are moving in that direction.

Duanesburg is working with the Schenectady County sheriff’s department to establish a part-time resource officer in the district. Duanesburg Superintendent Frank Macri said he hopes the part-time position will be in place in the coming weeks or months and that it would be evaluated at the end of the year as to whether the district wanted to maintain that model, expand to a full-time position or consider a different approach.

Sharon Spring Superintendent Patterson Green said he and his school board are “very much in favor” of having a school resource officer. But he hasn’t been able to work one out with the Schoharie County sheriff’s department or another law enforcement agency.

“The (school) board would be willing to reach into the fund balance to pay for it, but the problem is the sheriff department does not have any officers available,” Green said during a recent interview. “I’m sure it’s going to be part of the budget process, but the practical question is where are we going to purchase these resources from.”

Schoharie Superintendent David Blanchard said he is comfortable without a school resource officer, because the district is so close to a sherrif’s station, which sits across the street from the school.

“We have comfort that at least within our district we are so close, they are literally across the street, so that does lend some comfort to our conversation,” Blanchard said.

Whether to add school resource officers also promises to be at the center of budget discussion in Saratoga, where district officials and board members and some of the parents opposed to rearming monitors have expressed in openness to adding resource officers.

Also: School administrators, police grapple with student threats, Nov. 25, 2018

The idea has also come up in Niskayuna, where a recent spate of school threats has thrust the district into its own debate over how best to handle issues of safety and security. Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. has sounded less enthusiastic about the resource officer position than other superintendents but has said it’s ultimately a decision for the community. But if the community wants to move forward with a resource officer, he wants them to know it’s not going to protect against all harms.

“The school resource officer is not an armed guard, the school resource officer is not there to keep people safe and make arrests,” Tangorra said at a recent community forum. “If people say we want a school resource officer because that will make you safer, then you are wrong, that is just a false sense of security.”

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