By Sue Botos
Safety is never far from the minds of school administrators and staff, but as students head back to classrooms, the issue of keeping them from harm again takes center stage.
In the wake of school violence throughout the country, many believe that the presence of police in schools should be ramped up. However, according to school board members, it’s also important for students to realize that the sight of an officer walking down the hall does not necessarily mean something is wrong.
At the August Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Michael Shoaf announced that the district will implement another phase of the COPS in Schools program. “Chief (Kelly) Stillman will ask a patrolman once a day, for 10 minutes, to stop at the schools,” Shoaf explained. During the visits, the uniformed officer will interact with students and staff.
High school student resource officer (SRO) Mike Bernhardt and D.A.R.E. officer Tracey Hill are also part of the U.S. Department of Justice program, which encourages the presence of police in schools. Bernhardt’s salary is split with the city, and Hill’s position is covered by a grant. There will be no extra charge to the schools for the daily visits.
Shoaf added that after the Sandy Hook School shootings in December, a number of security options were discussed. It was decided that this program was the most practical. “It’s really in its infancy stages. There are a lot of details to be worked out,” Shoaf commented.
During the January school board session, parent Maureen Kishna asked that additional measures be taken to protect students during the school day. She suggested that unpredictable walk-throughs of buildings by police could be a deterrent. Administrators responded positively, adding that secure office and visitor check-in, separate from the rest of the building, were a major part of the recent renovations at Goldwood Primary and Kensington Intermediate schools, as well as the high school. The newer middle school has a passive security entrance.
School board member Jay Milano commented that Stillman has done a “spectacular job” of making the police a visible part of the community and working with the schools. But while he favored the new program, Milano asked that police appear less intimidating, especially when visiting with younger children. “Even in Rocky River, the police wear flak jackets and there is some concern about them looking too paramilitary. Please ask them just to wear their uniforms, not flak jackets. The kids don’t need to see that paramilitary look,” he stated.
Bernhardt wears a “soft uniform” consisting of a police department polo shirt, pants and his duty belt, complete with gun.
Shoaf noted that it probably will not be possible for patrol officers to visit each school every day. “We need good communication with parents so when their children come home and say that there was a police officer in school, they will know it was not an emergency,” he stated.
As noted by board member Jean Rounds, police presence in the schools is nothing new. She said that Bernhardt and Hill are almost daily fixtures at the high school and middle school, often paying visits to Goldwood and Kensington. “It’s not just a negative experience; they are building a positive relationship,” she said.
According to Bernhardt, who spends nine months working with students, parents and staff, and the summer on regular patrol, serving as SRO has definitely led to positive relationships. At the end of his inaugural season, the 2011-2012 school year, he noted a marked contrast in student reaction to him from the beginning to the end of the year. “The kids used to assume a cop was there to bust someone, but the SRO program changed that whole aspect,” he stated.
Above all, board members stressed communication with parents as the biggest deterrent to trouble. To make anonymous reports, they can contact the Safe School Helpline, 800-418-6421, ext. 359, or use www.safeschoolhelpline.com. Connect 5, an emergency information service, can be reached at www.rrcs.org/connect5.aspx. Bernhardt can be reached at 440-356-6810 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.