BUCKSPORT, Maine — In the wake of December’s Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre — in which a lone gunman slaughtered 20 children and six faculty members at a school in Newtown, Conn. — federal officials are expecting a big spike in funding applications for armed, accredited police officers in America’s schools.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s COPS program will hand out between $140 million and $150 million in grants to fund new police officer positions this year. After Sandy Hook, a decision was made to prioritize the funding of positions that increase school safety, including school resource officers, or SROs.
“Definitely, this year, we’ll see a much larger request” for SRO funding, said Corey Ray, a spokesman for the COPS office in Washington, D.C. “Many agencies know the focus of this program will be on school safety, and I think that with the economy, a lot of the positions that have been lost at the local level are SROs.”
One town looking to get a piece of that pie is Bucksport. A police presence in the town’s five schools has long been a priority, said Police Chief Sean Geaghan.
Three years ago, the town’s police department worked with Regional School Unit 25 to create a part-time SRO position. Since then, Officer Ryan Welch has worked 12 hours a week in Bucksport’s schools, mostly the high school. He has helped implement new safety procedures in the high school, such as surveillance cameras at school entrances and only one access point into the school, with doors locked and controlled by the main office.
After the tragedy in Newtown, Bucksport hopes to win COPS funding to make that position full-time.
“If you look, in the wake of what happened at Sandy Hook, we’re obviously very concerned about school safety,” said RSU 25 Superintendent Jim Boothby.
Since its inception in 1994, the COPS program has funded more than 430 full-time police positions in Maine, many of which have been SROs, at a value of $57.6 million. From 2000 to 2005, during the first big push for a police presence in education, the program funded more than 6,400 school resource officer positions nationwide.
Today, there are about 60 police officers working as SROs in Maine, according to Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. From Portland High School to Hampden Academy, districts have found value in having a regular police presence in the school.
Nationwide, there were about 10,000 school resource officers prior to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers, or NASRO. Mo Canady, that group’s executive director, said he expects that number to rise.
The association provides training for officers who will work as school resource officers. Canady said it takes a special kind of cop to connect with kids and be effective inside the classrooms and hallways of a school.
“Working in a school is a unique environment for a police officer, and requires some additional community-based policing skills to do the job properly,” he said.
Each day, Welch and other SROs patrol the schools they work in and handle any criminal complaints — usually smaller issues like theft, harassment, criminal mischief. Welch said he even has to hand out a summons from time to time, or serve paperwork on a student on behalf of juvenile corrections.
But school resource officers also educate students on law-related issues such as drinking and driving, drug abuse and the criminal justice system. Welch, who also is a paramedic in Glenburn, also teaches a basic anatomy and physiology class, and does a teaching unit on forensics and law enforcement at the high school.
“You see a police officer riding around in a cruiser and he looks like the guy hiding behind the mirror and sunglasses in the car. Here, I’m approachable,” he said. “Kids in this situation relate to a person coming in and interacting with them in their environment, and the classroom is, by and large, their environment.”
Police officers working the school beat also provide mentoring and some level of counseling to students who may be having a hard time at home, or children who are interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement.
Welch said a regular police presence in schools makes officers more approachable to students, and builds a relationship with the community while providing a positive image of law enforcement.
“The first year I was here, everyone’s reaction was, ‘Oh man, there’s a cop in the building, I wonder what’s wrong,’” he said Wednesday. “Now I’m just like the paint on the walls. I blend in.”
The National Rifle Association has called for every school in America to hire an armed police officer as a way to prevent another tragedy like the shooting at Sandy Hook, and school resource officers do train for “active shooter” scenarios. But Canady said that police officers are just one piece of a school safety puzzle that should include additional counselors, mental health practitioners and others.
“Most officers in schools are never going to experience a school shooting, and when you get down to it, that’s not what they’re dealing with,” Canady said. “They train and prepare, and they have to be ready for that situation, but there’s also people bringing drugs to schools, people trespassing on school property. There are kids dealing with domestic abuse at home. That’s what these SROs deal with on a daily basis.”
While police departments, SRO associations and school districts like Bucksport’s tout the importance of school resource officers, some people are made uncomfortable by the presence of law enforcement — or firearms — in a school.
Francis Plourde has been a school resource officer in Scarborough for 11 years. His day-to-day experience is much like Welch’s, he said: For the most part, students accept his presence, and in his role, he’s built a bridge between the police department and the community. But there are always “doubters,” he said, parents and students who don’t like him being in the school.
“For the majority, it’s a positive thing,” he said. “But there are some people who are uneasy that there’s an officer in the school, or someone with a gun in the school.”
Still, Plourde said, the officer’s presence is a psychological relief for many, who see his presence as a preventative measure against those who may want to harm students or faculty.
“It’s like, will someone break into a house with an alarm, or a car that’s locked?” he asked. “If someone is really determined, it won’t stop them, but the chances are less.”
In its application to the COPS grant program, Bucksport is looking for up to 75 percent funding for entry-level salary and benefits — up to a maximum of $125,000 — for a three-year, full-time school resource officer position.
Police Chief Sean Geaghan said there’s just too much work to be done in the schools — in law enforcement, education and community relations — for one officer to do in 12 hours per week.
Making the position full-time would also mean the school resource officer could spend more time in the middle school and elementary schools, and that patrol officers would be able to work on other complaints, knowing there was always an officer handling issues at the school.
But, for Geaghan, it’s mostly about safety. No one had heard of Sandy Hook or Columbine before each was struck by mass murder, he said. And no matter how small the chance, statistically, he doesn’t want to see Bucksport put on the map,
“It’s my responsibility, in the end,” he said. “God forbid it ever happens here, I’ll have to look myself in the mirror and ask whether I did everything I could to prevent it.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.