Highland News Leader

As school safety conversation continues, Highland considers hiring resource officer

A sign at Highland Middle School asking visitors to check in at the front office before entering the school, which is a precaution used for safety measures.
A sign at Highland Middle School asking visitors to check in at the front office before entering the school, which is a precaution used for safety measures. mbraa@bnd.com

Two weeks ago, a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, claimed the lives of 17 people, and wounded 15 others.

The tragedy prompted a national conversation on school violence, which has made its way to Highland due to recent events.

Last month, a Highland High School student was taken into custody by Highland police for making threats against two of his fellow students. Last week, the Highland School District and Highland Police Department investigated into the early morning hours after a threat was allegedly directed toward Highland Middle School students.

In response to these events, a group of Highland parents banded together to think of a solution. The group was present at the Highland School Board meeting on Feb. 26, where their representative, Jon Wakeley, voiced concerns and requested the district to reinstate a school resource officer.

"The fact is, school shootings are happening, and we are asking you to get ahead of it instead of behind it," Wakeley said.

The board has discussed this topic at length over the last several months, said Superintendent Mike Sutton. However, at the end of the Monday's meeting, the board remained undecided on whether the Highland School District will go into next year — the seventh in a row — without a full-time school resource officer.

"This is a really tough topic," said Sutton.

The board members decided to put their final decision on the agenda for the March meeting. But time is also an issue.

If the district wants to staff a SRO, Sutton said there needs to be further discussion with the Highland Police Department. He said the district would have to work with the department to find an appropriate candidate and get that officer approved. Finally, that officer would have to receive specific training to enter into the position.

"If we are going to look at an SRO for next year, we probably need to get the wheels in motion," Sutton said.

Schools across the country are increasing security or closing as they deal with threats to safety in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, attack.

How much would it cost?

Recently, Sutton and Highland Police Chief Terry Bell explored the possibility of bringing back an SRO cost-sharing program that was discontinued in 2011.

“It was something we’ve always kept in the back of our mind, hoping to get back one day,” Bell said.

However, they said cost has always been a hindrance — on both sides.

The original program was formed in the mid- to late-90s, according to Bell. Initially, the district paid for 90 percent of the officer’s cost, and the police department covered the rest. Around 2011, Bell said the district asked if a 50/50 split would be possible, due to financial difficulties. Bell brought the proposal to the City Council, but the police department was also facing its own monetary restrictions, and he said the proposal was never approved.

Today, Bell estimates an SRO would cost about $95,000. This cost would cover salary, benefits, equipment, and potentially over-time for after-hours activities the officer would need to attend.

Bell said he thought the city could pick up the costs for the three months when school was out.

“We could fund 25 percent of the costs, with approval from the City Council,” Bell said.

Under that agreement, Sutton said the district would pay about $70,000-$75,000, annually. Aside from a cost-sharing agreement, Sutton said the district does not qualify for any available grants to help fund the officer. There is also another issue with alternative funding.

“The issue with grants is that it generally covers a year or two, not a permanent solution,” Sutton said.

Bell said if the position is brought back, he would want want at least a five-year commitment from the school district. The police department has included the cost for the SRO in its budget process for the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

Current call volume

Without an SRO, all programs, patrols and presences at schools are done by officers are operating on overtime or using their off days. Or, they have to be taken off the streets to preform these duties.

“So, the one thing having an SRO would do, in many instances, is to help keep our staff on the street,” Bell said.

HPD Lt. Chris Conrad said the department performed 103 random and directed foot patrols at the high school in 2017. Highland Middle School received 50 random foot patrols, while Highland Elementary School and Highland Primary School received 30 patrols.

In addition, police were also called to the high school 58 times last year for various reasons, ranging from covering events to issues with students, according to Conrad. Officers also had about 25 calls split between the middle school, the elementary school and the primary school, though Conrad said the majority of those calls were traffic issues.

Would an SRO help?

Aside from cost, there is also debate about whether employing an officer would be a more effective means of deterring school violence rather than focusing on the student's social, emotional and psychological needs.

"This is same conversation we were having last year," Sutton said.

However, the board moved toward student's psychological needs. Last year, Sutton said the board chose to staff an additional psychologist at Highland Middle School.

"This also freed up time for another psychologist to work exclusively with HHS," Sutton said.

Highland High School Principal Dr. Karen Gauen said that adding an officer to the district would be more than just another added safety feature.

“I think we desperately need a SRO,” Gauen said.

She said having a consistent face on campus would help kids to develop a respectful relationship with law enforcement. While police do have a role on campus, Gauen said that having the same officer there every day would help students develop a deeper bond, and more trust.

“They make those connections with those kids, so we don’t, hopefully, go down the road of having a shooter,” Gauen said.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman trains police and school districts nationwide. He is also an author who specializes on the psychology of killing and is the director of the Killology Research Group, based out of Mascoutah. He has previously given presentations to the Highland School District.

Grossman said a SRO can play a crucial role in interrupting and preventing violence, quickened response times and disarming and apprehending active shooters.

“I would tell the School Board that the SRO is the best investment they could make to our children and to our community,” Grossman said.

Other safety measures

Though the district does not currently have an SRO, Sutton and Bell said the district and police department have laid an extensive groundwork for safety.

Bell said that officers have developed many programs to help educate on safety, including each district employee getting trained in active-shooter response on an annual basis.

“We’re really proud of it,” Bell said.

Several Highland officers are certified to give the training. They use hands-on, mock scenarios, drills and demonstrate what gunfire sounds like in hallways. District staff will go through an annual round of this training on March 2.

The department also brings in speakers to talk to the district and students about safety, and drug abuse prevention techniques. The department and district formed an emergency management team, which meets each month to discuss emergency response, life and health safety, and policy issues.

In addition to training, every school also locks all exterior doors, keeping only one point of entry during school hours. In some cases, the interior classrooms are locked as well, according to school principals.

“We have done everything we can to be safe,” Gauen said.

All visitors have to be buzzed in, checked in and out, and are often accompanied during their visits. Security cameras cover school areas inside and outside, as well as play grounds and parking lots. The schools also use screened protective glass, secure staging areas for busing, sign-outs for students, keep regular updates on local sex offenders, and practices no-contact protocol.

At Grantfork Elementary School, Grantfork Police have an office inside the school, according to the school’s Principal Cynthia Tolbert.

Toblert, who is also the principal at Alhambra Primary School, said Madison County Sheriff’s Office also has a deputy walk through Grantfork Elementary and Alhambra Primary schools once or twice a month.

Sutton said that the district will continue to train staff and students on emergency plans, and will prepare to implement those plans if a crisis arises.

“In the end, we hope and pray that we never have to put any of these plans into action,” Sutton said.

Megan Braa: 618-654-2366, ext 23, @MeganBraa