Focus

A Resident Cop Can Improve School Climate

SCHOOL SECURITY by RAYMOND YEAGLEY


My school board wasn’t convinced we needed a police presence in the Rochester, N.H., schools. When we first took up the idea, only five of the 13 board members supported it, and some of them were rather lukewarm in their support.

Some opponents feared we would turn our schools into a "police state" or "gulag." Others were uncomfortable in thinking that assigning a uniformed officer would represent the first step toward changing the face of our schools when Rochester hadn’t been plagued with gang activity or any other significant safety problem.

But after more than six months of emotional debate, the school board established a school resource officer program in partnership with the Rochester Police Department. That was nearly 18 months ago. After successfully sharing a police detective in our high school and middle school in 1998-99, the board unanimously approved adding a second officer this year through funding by the police department.

An Atypical Presence
The success of the program is due, in large part, to the appointment of a detective skilled in dealing with youngsters. His selection was the result of careful planning by police and school officials.

Meeting Detective Stacy Gilman in the school doesn’t create the stereotypical sense of police presence. He dresses casually, always has a smile and friendly word for students and others and seems to know something positive about each student he meets. Although every student and staff member in the building knows he is (unobtrusively) armed and ready to deal with any situation, his emphasis is on, as his job description puts it, "working within the school system to build positive relationships between students, faculty and the police, while enforcing the laws promoting a safe and drug-free environment."

The officer does not serve as the school’s disciplinarian, but he serves as a backup to the schools’ administrators. Students know that we will call upon his investigative skills to help us determine the truth.

How have students and staff reacted to his presence? The general consensus is that the atmosphere has improved. One high school student summed up the change by stating, "I never felt unsafe at school, but now I feel safe. Somehow it’s different."

Principals have praised the school resource officer program for helping to reduce fights, drugs, vandalism and other disciplinary problems at the two schools--1,200-student Rochester Middle School and 1,500-student Spaulding High School. Students also are more willing to confide in him information on problems that may be brewing. In one unusual instance, a student accused of theft was willing to talk to the detective and later surrender the stolen property in his possession as long as the principal and assistant principal weren’t present.

Teachers bring the detective into their classrooms to talk with students about citizenship and careers in law enforcement and to debunk some of the myths about the law. Gilman has been a good resource for strengthening curriculum and instruction in these and other areas.

Common Use
Public reaction also has been positive, with requests made to extend the program to the elementary schools. Community discussion no longer focuses solely on discipline and law enforcement, but on the educational benefits an officer brings to the schools.

The school resource officer program is neither new nor unique. Such programs can be found in schools nationwide. In some places, such as Texas and Florida, state laws permit school districts to form their own police units, and more than 80 districts in Texas have done so. The largest is that of the Houston Independent School District with 177 officers and a $12 million budget.

An Internet search turned up more than 1,000 references to school resource officers, including many web pages created by students who were working cooperatively with their officers. A common theme they expressed is the positive impact of the school resource officer on school environment, student behavior and overall safety for students, staff and visitors.

One of the most useful websites for school leaders looking for more information belongs to the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C. (www.ncsu.edu/cpsv). The site includes sample job descriptions, ideas for creating a school resource officer program and other valuable information.

The school resource officer is now an integral part of our school district’s safety plan. The good news: It has worked to improve school climate exactly as we envisioned. The bad news: We haven’t seen any yet and don’t expect to.

Raymond Yeagley is superintendent of the Rochester School Department, 150 Wakefield Street, Suite 8, Rochester, NH 03867. E-mail: yeagley@rochesterschools.com