Webster police chief sees value of police in schools

Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

By Haley Lerner
BU News Service

WEBSTER — After a recent online Statehouse forum focusing on alleged pitfalls of having police resource officers in schools, Police Chief Michael Shaw said he is a strong supporter of policing in schools.

In the forum, his department was mentioned by one participant, a Webster mother, who explained how her then 12-year-old daughter in 2013 had a contentious experience with a teacher that began over a homework assignment in a Webster school. In a social media posting on Facebook, Chief Shaw responded to the allegation that was reported in a Telegram & Gazette article and noted the child was not arrested and was only later summoned to court because she failed to comply with a teacher’s order to leave the classroom because she was causing a disturbance.

Having officers in schools helps students build relationships with law enforcement early on in their lives, the chief said, adding that school resource officers can become positive role models for students and can make students feel more comfortable talking to police.

A designated officer in school, instead of officers who only come to the school in emergencies or serious incidents, allows for someone to better understand the situation and who can deal with and de-escalate it, Shaw said.

“The kids feel comfortable talking to police,” he said. “You know, overall, not just the school resource officer but they’re comfortable talking to Webster police.”

Shaw said it is important that a school resource officer is the right fit for an educational environment.

“You have to have an officer that goes to the school that wants to be there,” he said. “Because if you don’t have the right person in the school then it’s just counterproductive all the way around for both sides.”

Shaw stressed the main purpose of an officer in a school is for safety and not punishment. Using an officer to deal with disciplinary action would not be a proper use of that resource, he noted.

“There are times when the school resource officer is going to have to act as a police officer, you know if somebody breaks the law, if they bring in drugs to school,” Shaw said. “They are going to have to probably talk to the school resource officer and face whatever sanctions, they still have a job to do … there’s de-escalation techniques that they utilize, which I think is huge.”

Shaw said taking formal legal action against young people is a “last resort,” and the goal is for the officer to build a bond with students, so they trust them and their role at the school.

Sana Fadel, deputy director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, an organization that produced the report that was the subject of the earlier article, said she thinks school policing issues are systematic and not due to any one officer being a bad person.

The National Association of School Resource Officers defines the responsibilities of a resource officer as someone who acts as a teacher, informal counselor and law enforcement officer, according to its website. Fadel said a main issue she finds with school resource officers is that they are often given too many responsibilities, but not enough training to properly be a helpful resource for all students.

“The problem with that language is that we worry about the under-investment in schools in how they hire and train the social and emotional supports for students to specifically fulfill those roles,” she said.

The report from Citizens for Juvenile Justice and Strategies for Youth found that Black and brown students and students with disabilities are “disproportionately targeted” for in-school arrests. In Massachusetts during the 2015-16 school year, Black and Latinx students made up 27 percent of all students, but 64 percent of student arrests.

Fadel said it’s not always the fault of school resource officers that situations escalate with students at schools, but sometimes a lack of diversity in the school can lead to students of color being discriminated against.

“The role of the SRO and a lot of times intervention is actually driven by the school, not by the police,” Fadel said. “A lot of times because the school administration wanted to deal with troubling behavior and they are the ones who called the police.”

Chief Shaw said as a profession, police should be looking for solutions to address and work on issues of racial discrimination.

“If that’s something we need to work on, you know as a profession, let’s take a look at it and work on it.”

He said the best way to make progress is through community-based discussions.

“I think we need to just have open and honest conversations and just talk to people and if students have an issue what’s to say we can’t bring it to the table and have a meaningful dialogue about it,” he said. “I have no problem with talking with anybody. We may not always leave the table agreeing, but at least we can respect each other’s viewpoints.”

This article was originally published on telegram.com.

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