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Northwest Arkansas districts beefing up security in schools

This piece originally appeared on the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Some of Northwest Arkansas' largest school districts are adding school resource officers or armed guards.

A prime example is Springdale, which increased its number of school resource officers from 10 to 18 in the past four years. The district has officers at each of its high schools, junior high schools and middle schools. Four officers share coverage of the 18 elementary schools, said Rick Schaeffer, director of communications.

In addition, two police sergeants help manage the school resource officer program and float from building to building.

"Every kid needs to feel safe when they go to school. Every one of them," Schaeffer said. "Kids learn they can go to an officer for help, it's not something to be feared. And when you see an officer in the school every day, it really builds a better relationship between the students and the police force."

All school resource officers are police officers employed by their local police departments. The amount the district spends on school resource officers has increased from nearly $600,000 in the 2015-16 school year to $1,063,000 this year, according to district officials.

The district pays the salaries and benefits of each officer during the school year. The city pays them for June and July, said Kelly Hayes, the district's comptroller.

Bentonville decided last year to allow commissioned security officers to carry guns on campus if they complete the required training. Two such officers work at Bentonville High School and two are at West High School, in addition to two school resource officers at Bentonville and one at West.

Fayetteville employs five school resource officers and is looking to add more. The district's request for two more officers from Fayetteville police was removed from the agenda of this week's City Council meeting. Fayetteville school officials are still working out details on the agreement with the city, said Alan Wilbourn, a district spokesman.

The request must go through the council because the city must add the positions and make a corresponding budget adjustment. The cost of the two positions for a year was projected to be $196,679, with the district reimbursing the city $134,649, according to a memo originally attached to Tuesday's council agenda.

Rogers has six school resource officers, as it has for several years -- one at each of the four middle schools and one at both Rogers High School and Heritage High School. Rogers' Police Department provides all six officers free to the district, though the schools provide an office with a phone and a computer, said Charles Lee, assistant superintendent.

Some smaller districts are adding police presence, too.

Farmington added a second school resource officer last spring. The Lincoln School Board agreed last month to add a part-time officer at its high school, joining a full-time officer already in place there.

Recent mass shootings heightened the issue of officers and armed staff members at schools.

The Arkansas School Safety Commission, created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson after the Feb. 14, 2018, killing of 17 students and staff members by an intruder at a Parkland, Fla., high school, made 30 recommendations for improving safety. None are mandatory for schools and districts.

The commission recommended no school go without an armed security presence when students and staff are present.

Connecting with kids

The Bentonville School District uses six officers. Two are at Bentonville High School while West High School gets one because it's smaller. The district also has an officer at each of its three junior high schools.

Five of the school resource officers come from the Bentonville Police Department. West High School's is a Centerton officer. The district pays about $75,220 a school year for each officer from Bentonville, according to Steve Vera, the district's director of safety and security.

Cpl. John Loncarevic has been a Bentonville resource officer for five years. His No. 1 duty, he said, is maintaining security at the school of more than 3,000 students. He tries to do so in a "casual" fashion that doesn't make kids feel like they're in some type of institution where they should be concerned about their safety, he said.

Another part of the job is connecting with students on a personal level and making them more comfortable being around law-enforcement officers, he said.

"I've had people tell me, it's sad we have to have officers in our schools nowadays. And I don't think it is," Loncarevic said. "Most of these kids will go a whole lifetime without interacting with an officer. But by us being in the school and doing our jobs as school resource officers, we interact with them, and they do get an understanding of what our jobs are and that it's not just to arrest people."

Still, there are times -- he estimated about twice a week -- when the interactions with students aren't so pleasant, such as when he's dealing with a teen having suicidal thoughts or one who's brought drugs on campus.

Loncarevic said he knows many of the students by name, though he knows even more by their faces. He recalled a recent incident when he noticed someone hanging around on campus who he didn't recognize.

"Sure enough, it was actually a kid who graduated two years ago. And he was trying to be with a girlfriend. He was escorted off campus," Loncarevic said.

Bentonville has implemented several changes recently to improve security at its high schools. All high school students last year begin wearing identification cards on lanyards. Commissioned school security officers were allowed to carry guns after undergoing 60 hours of training through the Arkansas State Police. They also are required to do 24 hours of refresher training each year, according to Vera.

This summer, Bentonville High School installed black metal fencing on two sides of the driveway separating its two buildings, blocking vehicle traffic during the day and allowing officials tighter control over where people can enter the buildings.

The fencing "definitely increases security," Loncarevic said.

In Springdale, some school resource officers even teach classes, such as in the Law and Public Safety Academy at Springdale High School.

The Springdale officers mainly are there to provide security and some advice or counseling to those students who need it, said Lt. Jeff Taylor of the Springdale police, who oversees the department's school resource officer program.

"We want the students to understand we're there to help them," Taylor said. "We're there to guide them and be a mentor to them. Some of these kids don't come from the greatest home life, so having a positive role model in the schools is important."


Not everyone thinks school resource officers are necessary.

Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, dedicated to advancing justice-system reform policies it views as good for all people and communities.

The institute released a study in 2011, "Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools." The study found an increased presence of law enforcement in schools coincided with increases in referrals to the justice system, especially for minor offenses.

Schindler said he's not aware of any research showing school resource officers make schools safer. He thinks the money schools spend on officers might be better spent.

Most school resource officers view themselves as part-time counselors to the students, but their training is in law enforcement, not counseling, he said.

"I would suggest you're actually going to get better bang for your buck by investing in trained people who are there to develop close relationships with kids," Schindler said.

Unintended consequences also must be considered. When a student misbehaves, there's more likely to be a law enforcement response than a school response, leading to arrests and higher rates of suspensions and expulsions, he said.

"And this happens disproportionately to kids of color," Schindler said. "Years ago, when you didn't have student resource officers, it was very rare for a young person to be arrested for school behavior. But if you introduce somebody whose training is in making arrests, it shouldn't surprise us that arrests happen."

The National Association of School Resource Officers recommends every law enforcement agency placing officers in schools have an agreement with the school that includes prohibiting the officers from becoming involved in formal discipline situations that are the responsibility of school administrators, according to the association's website.

That's the case in Springdale, Taylor said.

"We have a memorandum of understanding with the schools on what our roles are," he said. "We can't enforce school discipline."

This piece originally appeared on the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.



Posted in JPI in the News

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