Second police officer could soon be assigned to cover GHS and middle schools

It looks as though a second school resource officer (SRO) will be assigned to Greenwich High School. But the question remains how it will be paid for.

At the Board of Education’s April 4 work session, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie recommended that the district work with the Greenwich Police Department to add the officer to “round out coverage” at GHS. Dr. McKersie did not go into the specifics of what that meant since it involved police response tactics but said this would also allow for coverage to begin at the district’s three middle schools.

This is being done as part of implementing changes to school security and safety procedures. A review of existing policy was done in response to the Newtown shootings last December with several recommendations made. Dr. McKersie said this was a “very careful look” and praised the SRO program because “it can help build relationships with those students who are in need of extra attention.” Dr. McKersie added there are “a fair number of those students” in the district and this addition would help build those relationships at the middle school level along with help from mental health professionals in the schools.

“They can work with those youth around the edge of trouble or actually into trouble to bring in that legal perspective in a relationship-building way,” Dr. McKersie said. “So when those students do arrive at the high school, we would have a much better understanding of them.”

Dr. McKersie said the evidence has shown that building these relationships can be “very beneficial” and that doing it earlier, at the middle school level, can help head off issues.

Officer Carlos Franco has been the SRO since the position was first approved, and Dr. McKersie said this would also help by allowing the second officer to learn under Officer Franco to make sure the person is trained and ready when he leaves the position in approximately two years. The practice of the Police Department is to switch people out of positions like SRO to prevent burnout.

“We know that we have a large high school and we have an increasingly diverse high school of all backgrounds,” Dr. McKersie said. “Officer Franco is indeed a gifted SRO, as I think anyone who has worked with him can attest. What’s important is that he has and is continuing to go through training and support so he brings a special mix to this. Any other SRO would have those same attributes and the same sense of focus on youth and development of youth. Yes, this will come from a police perspective and will keep students and children in the right place with their behavior, but these will be police officers very much focused on youth development.”

Dr. McKersie said that before the SRO was implemented, police were visiting GHS 181 times a year, almost a trip a day during the school year. He stressed that this issue was not unique to Greenwich, as during his tenure at the Catholic schools in Boston, he encountered similar problems.

“The advantage of the SRO is that it keeps it from becoming an escalated legal situation and much more of a youth intervention situation,” Dr. McKersie said. “When you have an officer in the mix that the students know and the administrators know, it can become a non-legal issue. Things can be mitigated and headed off as opposed to an officer coming new to the school who may not know the students and may not know the teachers.”

Mary Forde, the district’s director of pupil personnel services and special education, added that she believed it has been a success at GHS because of how well Officer Franco has worked as part of a team with the school’s mental health support staff.

“He makes it his business to know the students, to know their behavior plans and be part of the community,” Ms. Forde said. “That is the critical part of the SRO in a high school. He is not necessarily seen as a police officer but as another way of supporting students who are in trouble. He does step into his police role when necessary, but he is clearly an integral part of the support team, and I think both the staff and the students see him that way.”

As part of the evaluation of safety and security, $1.4 million in improvements to school facilities, including new locks, upgraded intercoms and additional security cameras, was approved Monday night by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), and further approvals could well be needed for this change as well. However, what exactly remains to be done was unclear on Thursday. The current SRO is not a Board of Education job but rather one in the Greenwich Police Department under its budget, and how much it will cost and in which department’s budget it will appear still has to be settled.

Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty pressed Dr. McKersie on this and he admitted that it has not been settled yet.

“It’s under review,” Dr. McKersie said. “We do definitely know what the Police Department puts forth to cover the position with the district and we have to come to a solution on the funding. We would have to come back with [Chief of Police James] Heavey and talk to the board about that. I know the department has some options if the moneys aren’t fully there for a whole additional SRO to still build toward that. … The exact answer on the dollars is that if the board can do it, that is what people would hope, but we know that’s not possible so we have to work with Chief Heavey.”

Ms. Moriarty responded by saying, “That’s a good non-answer,” which elicited a laugh from the crowd. She said the board would look for clarity over the next few weeks.

The Board of Education still has to formally approve Dr. McKersie’s recommendation, and it looks as if that will happen at the April 21 meeting. Board members did not offer much in the way of comment, save for Peter von Braun, who said that there was one SRO at the high school compared to 27 social workers, psychologists and guidance counselors.

“Going to a ratio of two SROs to 27 counselors is not at all untoward,” Mr. von Braun said.

 

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