School police officer position under analysis

PAT FRIDGEN

The Greencastle-Antrim School Board will conduct an informational session on a School Resource Officer Thursday night at its regular meeting. Greencastle Borough Council voted on the concept Aug. 3. The Antrim Township Board of Supervisors discussed the topic Aug. 11.

The three entities are pondering the idea of splitting costs for a police officer to serve the high school and middle school, a position that has become common in Franklin County in the past few years. An SRO was first mentioned by Police Chief John Phillippy at a council meeting several months ago. He is seeking grants for initial funding. If everyone was in agreement, the person could start work in January.

Representatives from the three governing bodies met July 29, and according to councilman Harry Foley, all supported pursuing discussions on making an SRO happen. One thought was that each group pay one-third of the estimated $75,000 cost of an officer. The person would be an employee of the Greencastle Police Department.

The people meeting to first discuss the venture were, from the borough:  Foley, Charles Eckstine, Paul Schemel, Craig Myers, Robert Eberly, Kenneth Womack, and Phillippy; from the township, Samuel Miller and Brad Graham; from the school district, Dan Fisher, Mike Shindle, Eric Holtzman, Greg Hoover and Ed Rife.

Initial actions

Borough Council voted 6-1 to move forward. In support were Eckstine, Foley, Myers, Schemel, Duane Kinzer and Mark Singer. Michele Emmett wanted more information on the true need, based on the amount of juvenile crime and data on the effectiveness in other districts.

In Antrim supervisors Miller, Curtis Myers, Rick Baer and Fred Young III liked the idea but doubted they could contribute financially. Solicitor John Lisko had researched and said the township could not pay for a school district employee, even though the bulk of the students lived in Antrim. The facility itself was in the borough and the school had its own budget. He had not checked into the legality if the officer was employed by the borough. Miller wanted an officer as a way to prevent kids from making bad decisions. Young wondered if the school would want other monetary assistance. "If we do this, where would it stop? If they need another dean, would we help pay for that?"

Area schools

The principals in other Franklin County high schools were enthusiastic about having an SRO. Greencastle's student population in grades 6-12 is approximately 1,500. Tuscarora is similar in size. A retired police officer has been an SRO in Mercersburg for the past year and a half. He is fulltime during the school year. While he is available to serve the district's six schools as needed, he spends most of his time at the high school.

Principal Rod Benedict said previously the school had an agreement with Mercersburg police to respond to calls because Pennsylvania State Police would take too long to get to the rural buildings. "The Police Department was on a retainer to service us. They were great to work with but they weren't on site."

Now Tuscarora has its own employee, funded by the district and a Safe Schools grant. Whereas in the past, police were called out once or twice a week for fights, drugs, weapons or other offenses that could result in expulsion, now the officer can be on the scene immediately.

"He's a great guy," said Benedict. "Kids know him and report issues to him. He acts like another level of administration."

Job responsibilities include supervision, handling truancies, issuing citations, interviewing students with parental permission, communicating with the district attorney's office, police department and courts, and being a resource for the parents.

"I'm very positive about the whole thing," Benedict said. "Not just any officer would work in this position. It was important he be the right person. He is very student-centered. He's a go-to person and a student advocate."

The SRO wears a uniform and is armed in the school. That adds to the authenticity of the position and aids the overall climate, the principal added.

Shippensburg, with a student population of nearly 1,200 in the secondary schools, has been approved to hire an SRO. A receptionist for the high school said it is in the budget and administrators are still discussing the job description and requirements. The principal was not available for comment.

Waynesboro will start its second year with an officer this month. The officer will work with 2,100 students and also visit the elementary schools in Washington Township, though he does not have any arrest authority there. Middle School Principal Brian Richter previously worked in the high school and last year, with an SRO, saw that "the difference was night and day."

In the past it could take 20 minutes to an hour for Waynesboro police to respond, depending on the severity of the incident. Now it is dealt with promptly.

"He's a huge asset," Richter said. "I cannot imagine going back to not having him here."

The officer is younger, wears a uniform and is armed. "Otherwise he's just another security guard, a mall cop," he continued. "(The attire) sets the whole tone. The mood changes when he walks in the building."

Richter said the SRO duties include briefings to the students at the beginning of the year on behavior issues and consequences, teaching some classes, walking the halls, meeting students at lunchtime, and utilitizing an open door policy at his office in the middle school. Right now he is paid through a grant and the borough. Richter hopes the school board will pick up the tab when the grant ends. "He's indispensable. He opens up rapport and breaks down barriers."

Another benefit is that the students who get into trouble deal with the same officer each time, so there is consistency and someone who knows the whole picture, and the police department has appreciated that, he said.

Chambersburg, with 1,800 students in the high school alone, uses two SRO officers between that and Faust Junior High. They are members of the borough police department dedicated to the school system. A spokesman at the district office said the high school has had an officer for five years, working fulltime. She did not know if he was armed, but he did not wear a uniform. The principal and Director of Security could not be reached for comment.