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Christina renews school resource officer contracts

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After some initial hesitation, the Christina School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to renew the contracts for 10 school resource officers.

However, board members acknowledged the need for more counselors and mental health professionals in the schools and vowed to continue discussions about how to add them in addition to – not in place of – armed police officers.

“SROs, I believe, are a proven means to provide help to students. We just heard a lot of examples from administrators and SROs,” board member Fred Polaski said. “We need to add to that, not try to replace it with something else that we don’t know what the program is right now. With schools starting in less than two months, changing to something different is just not feasible.”

Christina will pay a total of $872,000 to the Newark Police Department, Delaware State Police and Wilmington Police Department to continue stationing an SRO at Christiana, Glasgow, Gauger-Cobbs, Shue-Medill, Kirk, Bancroft, Bayard and Douglass schools, plus two at Newark High School.

The yearly contract renewal was before the board last month as a routine matter, but in light of the ongoing national conversation about race and policing, board members wanted more time to consider the matter and hear from people in the district about the benefits and drawbacks of SROs.

In recent weeks, some school districts elsewhere in the country, including Minneapolis, Denver and Portland, Ore., have removed SROs from schools, and some community advocates call for using the money saved to invest in more counselors and social workers. Here in Delaware, Red Clay Consolidated School District is considering a similar measure.

However, Christina Superintendent Dan Shelton voiced strong support for continuing the SRO program, as did the two administrators and four police officers he lined up to speak to the board Tuesday.

Shelton, who began his role as superintendent this month after serving as a principal in Christina and most recently as superintendent of Capital School District, said he agrees that schools need more counselors, psychologists and social workers. But, he added, those positions would not replace the skills SROs bring.

“They do a different set of jobs,” Shelton said. “It’s not one replaces the other. We need both, and we need both in a very strong way if we’re going to support our students and our families.”

SROs build relationships with students and when problems arise, they are able to conduct investigations in a “humane way,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we have students in our schools that break laws,” he said. “There are two ways to deal with that. The first would be with a school resource officer that has created [relationships] with our students and has been able to get to know the school. And then the second would be to have officers come in off of the street and deal with those individuals.”

Michele Savage, principal of Shue-Medill Middle School, said Delaware State Trooper Matt Owens has played an instrumental role in helping her and her staff improve the behavior and climate at the school.

She said Owens worked with other officers to track down the culprit behind a threat against the school that surfaced on social media two years ago. He has helped reassure students and staff concerned about active shooters, helped design ways to make the hallways safer and trained teachers how to fend off an attacker.

Owens greets students each morning, mentors students, coaches the girls’ basketball team and serves as a sounding board for students and parents alike.

“I see students fist-bumping and high-fiving him, and they will end up having conversations,” Savage said. “I've also seen parents stop and ask him questions as a safety measure, like, ‘Hey, this happened and how do I handle that?’”

She said Owens agrees with her that arresting a student should be the last resort.

“I completely understand why there are concerns about officers and law enforcement in general, and I totally support changing the legal system and the way we utilize police,” Savage said. “That being said, I actually believe that our school and Officer Owens can be an example for society in how officers should be utilized.”

Sgt. Brian Pixley, SRO supervisor for Delaware State Police, said SROs are experienced troopers who go through a “very thorough selection process,” followed by a weeklong SRO training course and a three-day advanced training course.

He noted that state law requires schools to report certain crimes to the police, regardless of whether the school has an SRO.

“We don't believe that reports to police would necessarily go down if the elimination of SRO officers took place,” Pixley said.

He said SROs stay out of the normal school discipline process and only get involved when crimes occur.

“We aren’t out there like a patrol trooper is, looking for crime,” he said. “We're really just reacting to situations and trying to handle them the best way appropriate.”

The Newark Police Department has long had an officer stationed at Newark High School and earlier this year added a second officer in response to what police called a “dramatic increase” in crime there.

Between September and February, the SRO at Newark High handled 100 incidents and made 45 arrests. The arrests included 13 for disorderly conduct, 12 for assault or offensive touching, four for conspiracy, two for theft, two for terroristic threatening and two for marijuana possession. The rest were for other unspecified offenses, according to a breakdown released by police.

Newark Police Chief Paul Tiernan said SROs exemplify the concept of community policing.

“They really stress the relationship with the student, and arrest is the last resort. So many of the school resource officers have told me over the years that they were able to keep a student out of the criminal justice system or the juvenile justice system because they have a relationship with the student and were able to counsel them and guide them,” Tiernan said.

“Now more than ever, with the environment going on, we need these positive relationships. This is a great chance for police officers to get to know the students, and for the students to get to know the police officers in a non-threatening environment,” he added.

Board member Keeley Powell said she received a considerable amount of feedback from constituents about the SRO contracts, which she described as equally split between those in favor and those against. However, only one member of the public spoke on the issue during Tuesday’s meeting.

Stephanie Hartley, a parent and Christina employee, urged the board to eliminate SROs because she is worried her son, who is black, could be mistreated by a police officer at school.

“I’m not claiming that the individuals who work as SROs are bad people. I'm not claiming police officers are bad people. I'm not claiming that some positive relationships are not fostered,” Hartley said. “But what I'm saying is the intent behind having SROs in schools does not match the reality of what is happening.”

Shelton said that he is planning a “comprehensive listening process” to hear concerns from parents, students and staff and anticipates that will include discussion of SROs and the need for more mental health and counseling services. He told the board he expects that addressing those concerns will be a priority for the next year but wants to hear the feedback first.

“What I don't want to do is circumvent that process where we allow the public very clear and open forums to express all of the potential areas of need, and then to do a really comprehensive process to identify where our highest leverage areas to focus on are,” he said. “Quite frankly, schools could do 100 million different things, and every single one of them would help kids. What we need to do is make sure we're leveraging our most important things, the things that will do the greatest good.”

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