Sense of security: Schools utilizing SROs, safety teams to protect students, staff

  • SRO Michael Carpenter stands in the entrance area of Bow High School last month. Carpenter roves between several schools in the district. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/31/2018 10:20:30 PM

Bow police officer Michael Carpenter’s day can change in an instant.

In one moment, Bow’s school resource officer will chat with middle school students about what they plan to buy at the book fair. Minutes later, he can respond to a call in the occupational therapy room for a student having a hard day.

In the halls of Bow High School, he may find himself clowning around with a students as he makes his rounds. On a recent afternoon, things got a little more serious as he attended a meeting with the Division for Children, Youth and Families.

During his shifts at the schools, Carpenter typically dresses in what he calls his “softer uniform” – khakis and a polo – meant to make him more approachable to students. Underneath, he wears a bulletproof Kevlar vest, and he’s never without a Taser and a loaded firearm.

Like his uniform, Carpenter’s job is a balancing act between approachability and authority. On one hand, he said he tries to be a caretaker for students, a friendly face that they can feel comfortable talking to about personal problems and questions about the law. On the other hand, he’s been trained to confront threats to the school and stop them with force if necessary – even if the threat comes from a child.

“There’s a time and a place for everything,” Carpenter said during a recent interview. “I’m perfectly happy being a caretaker, but if push comes to shove, it forces me to take that other role, and I’m more than happy to take it. My job is to keep everyone safe.”

Recent school shootings have brought up questions about the role school resource officers play in keeping students safe in schools.

In Parkland, Fla., SRO Scot Peterson was vilified for not confronting a shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February and later retired amid the criticism.

On March 20, Maryland school resource officer Blaine Gaskill was hailed a hero for confronting and shooting at a student gunman at Great Mills High School. The officer’s bullet hit the 17-year-old student in the hand, just as he fatally shot himself in the head, police said.

Following school shootings – like Parkland and Newtown, Conn., before that – lawmakers at both the local and national level have called for more school resource officers or armed guards to protect schools.

Despite having police stationed in schools for decades, research on the impact resource officers have on the safety and overall climate of schools can be difficult to find. Some studies have found that having police in schools leads to harsh responses to minor disciplinary situations that typically would be handled by school administrators. Criminalizing minor offenses led to an effect called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

While research and data on school safety is elusive, the National Association of School Resource Officers has said having police in schools keeps students safer by building “valuable, positive relationships with students, faculty and parents that often enable SROs to obtain information on planned violent acts before they occur.”

In New Hampshire, basic statistics on the number and type of incidents school resource officers deal with on an annual basis don’t exist. Even the exact number of school resource officers assigned to schools around the state is unknown.

Having an armed police officer isn’t the only way school districts can prepare for life-safety threats. Some, like Bow, utilize safety and response teams, staff members whose job it is to head off security threats before they become critical.

On patrol

In Bow, Carpenter begins his day at the same time and place as the students, parking his cruiser in the bus loop and heading through the front door of the high school.

Carpenter is responsible for all three of Bow’s schools. Several times a month, he teaches classes at the middle school on topics that range from bullying to vaping to sexting.

The last one sometimes gives people pause.

“People ask me if it’s really appropriate to be teaching a class about sexting to seventh-graders,” he said. “But that’s where my cases are, that’s where it starts.”

Being a police officer can give Carpenter insight into a student’s life that a school might not have otherwise, he said. Making home visits to check on chronically-absent students is also part of the job. Sometimes he’s present when DCYF gets involved in a student’s life, or a parent gets arrested, or when someone winds up in court.

Carpenter attributes his ease working with students to his time as a member of the New Hampshire Hospital campus police unit. He said knowing how to be human is the most important part of his job.

That balance between protector and community member isn’t for everyone, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“It’s the most unique assignment in law enforcement. There’s nothing else like it,” he said.

Canady said SROs need to have a good understanding of how teenagers act, as well as the ability to confront a threat, no matter who it is.

“That’s why the selection of the person is so critical,” he said. “They need to be able to flip the switch in an instant. As this role has become more professional, we need those guys and gals with the tactical experience, to have the best marksmen in schools. Because when you have to take a shot, you don’t want to miss.”

Support staff

Carpenter is not the only one in Bow trained to look for potential threats to student safety.

Bow High School utilizes safety and response teams that meet once a month to discuss what’s going on in the school. Carpenter said he and the teams rely on each other to give insight the others might not have.

Bow’s safety officer is Paul Cohen, a math teacher who has a military background in counter-terrorism training and also has experience as a state lifeguard. Those two elements give him a heightened understanding of what risk looks like, he said.

“You have to have situational awareness,” Cohen said. “You can’t (be a teacher) just walk back to your classroom and not know what’s going on around you. It’s not okay in today’s world. That doesn’t mean you live your life being paranoid ... if something doesn’t seem right, it’s probably not right.”

Knowing what’s going on is more than just an observational art, said Colleen DesRuisseaux, BHS’s director of counseling.

She illustrates to staff which students might need attention by writing each student’s name down on a memo. Teachers then walk across a grid of notes on the floor, picking up names of students they think they know well. Staff is then instructed to touch base with a student whose name remains on the floor.

“You have to make sure students have someone other than a guidance counselor to talk to,” she said.

The safety team also manages the school’s drills. Although they can sometimes feel like overkill, Cohen said having students be more familiar with a drill will hopefully keep them from panicking when a real emergency occurs.

Such incidents have been few and far between in Bow. The middle and elementary schools went into “secure campus” mode last year – limiting visitors and shutting down the perimeter – when they received a threat by phone. The closest thing to a safety threat in recent years was when the high school had to “shelter in place” twice due to a bear sighting in the parking lot.

Preventative measures

The SRO position has been around since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until high-profile school shootings like the one that occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 that more SROs started coming onto the scene, Canady said.

NASRO, founded in 1990, has had 8,300 people go through their basic course since 2011, and 43 New Hampshire residents are current members, although not everyone who completes the course maintains a membership, said NASRO public information officer Jay Farlow.

The numbers don’t necessarily show how many SROs are in the state, not just because NASRO isn’t the only organization to offer SRO training, but because there’s no national requirement that schools have SROs or that they undergo any special training, Canady said.

Legislation recently introduced in Congress would look to fix that. Two bills, HRs 5242 and 5243, would direct the Attorney General and the Secretary of Education to survey all public schools to determine the number of SROs and develop national standards and practices.

Canady said having national standards in place would possibly prevent officers from reacting differently to threats like school shootings.

He said his organization does little training in Florida, so he couldn’t speak to SRO Peterson’s actions in Parkland, Fla.

“He may not have been trained to go directly to the threat,” he said.

But he held up Maryland SRO Gaskill’s actions as those of a “well-trained SRO.”

“About 20 percent of schools have a properly trained SRO,” he said. “So you don’t know what’s up with the other 80 percent.”

Schools are also not required to have safety and response teams, said Michael Todd, spokesman for the Department of Safety.

Of the school districts in Merrimack County, six appear to have an SRO – Bow, Concord, Merrimack Valley, Winnisquam Regional and Franklin, according to municipal websites. Pembroke has an SRO, but it’s unclear if the rest of SAU 53, which includes Allenstown, Chichester, Deerfield, Epsom and Pembroke, have one.

Locally, Bow, Concord and Merrimack Valley reported some form of a safety team, a response team or an emergency management team, according to school officials. Winnisquam Regional and Franklin school officials did not respond to requests for information.

Hopkinton and SAU 24 schools, which include Weare and Henniker, do not have an SRO, but have safety teams or safety and security committees, according to officials. Pembroke and Deerfield utilize emergency committees. Kearsarge Regional does not list any SROs on police department websites of attending towns.

Two state laws govern what schools are supposed to do to keep students safe.

RSA 154:14 requires a local fire marshal to inspect and report on any state fire code compliance issues with the building annually.

And RSA 189:64 mandates that schools have a site-specific emergency response plan that conforms to the Incident Command System and the National Incident Management System. The report must be submitted to the Department of Education and should cover acts of violence, threats, natural disasters, structural fires, hazardous materials and medical emergencies.

The state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management department offers security assessments at no charge to all schools. As of the beginning of March, 453 of 513 public schools have been assessed, including 53 reassessments.

Grants are available for schools that need security upgrades and undergo assessments, Todd said. The state allocated $1.2 million for school security upgrades between 2012 and 2016, and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and the Executive Council have approved $9.5 million in grants.

Officials said it’s unfortunate discussions about how to keep students safe only seem to happen after an incident.

“I do think it’s very sad in this day and age to have to have lockdown drills and safety training,” Cohen said. “If I had my wish, it wouldn’t be this way at all, but we have to be prepared.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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