By Sue Botos
The sight of police cars surrounding the scene of yet another school shooting has become tragically familiar. But the Rocky River Board of Education and the city police hope to team up for a program that will bring officers into the schools on a regular basis, not only during emergencies.
Addressing the board at its November committee session, police Chief Kelly Stillman recalled that it has almost been one year since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. He noted that in the aftermath, there has been discussion throughout the country about bringing police into schools on a regular basis – and the “Cops Adopting Schools” program evolved as a result.
Referring to the success of student resource officer (SRO) Mike Bernhardt, now in his third year at the high school, Stillman predicted that this program will work just as well. “It will give the opportunity for the kids and police to build a relationship in a positive environment,” he stated.
Stillman explained that two officers would be chosen for the program, each one visiting the same school every day to build rapport with staff and students. Training would then take place with the patrol officers and principals at Goldwood Primary, Kensington Intermediate and the middle schools, establishing protocols for each building.
When arriving at a school, the officer will check in with the principal to address any concerns he or she may have, and then do a walk-through of the school. A perimeter check will be included in the visit. Stillman noted that officers will arrive at the buildings at varying times each day, so anyone observing could not predict when the 10- to 15-minute visit will take place.
“Teachers can engage the officer if they want to. This is not disruptive, and they don’t have to stop their class to recognize the officer,” Stillman stated. However, he said that incorporating police into a lesson plan would be welcome. “If an officer wants to get involved and tell the kids about his job, that’s up to the principal,” he stated.
“This is a prime opportunity to get kids, at a young age, used to police,” Stillman said, noting that many times, a student’s first encounter with law enforcement is at an older age in a much less positive environment.
There is no cost for the program, Stillman continued, adding that once patrol officers become fixtures in a school, their presence will be less disruptive to the students, parents and any member of the community who sees a squad car parked outside of a building.
“This is one more tool for us to use for the safety of our children,” Stillman commented. He also demonstrated the MARCS radio system to the board. The system has been provided by the state, at no charge, to all school buildings. He said that the system allows for communication to police with the touch of one button.
Stillman said he hopes to get the pilot program running after students return from their winter break in January. He noted that contacts in other states have reported success with similar programs, and that their officers participate in many school programs. “It has evolved into more than just a 10-minute cursory walk-through,” he said.
“This is not as easy as it sounds,” Stillman continued, adding that he took “bits and pieces” from similar programs to customize one for the city. Building principals, he said, will have a vital role in evaluating the plan at the end of the school year. In addition, the program has to be made known to the public so no one panics after seeing a police car outside a school. Stillman noted the vehicles will park in a prominent place.
While school board members generally favored the program, member Jay Milano noted that “Cops Adopting Schools” differs from the SRO or D.A.R.E. programs in that it involves more “direct policing.” He expressed some concern that daily presence of the police may be intimidating to children, especially the perimeter checks. “This might put a ‘bogeyman’ mentality into kids. This is pure enforcement,” he stated.
Assistant Superintendent Liz Anderson commented that she felt the perimeter walk was the best part of the proposal.
Noting the improvements to building safety as a part of the recent school renovation projects, board member Jean Rounds commented, “This is a progressive move. Safety is our top concern.”