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Friday, September 21 News

District debates school resource officer for Staples

WESTPORT — Just a little more than 12 hours before a threat was identified and a potential mass shooting averted in Westport, school officials were discussing school safety and the efficacy of adding a school resource officer to Staples High School.

At the Monday meeting of the Board of Education, Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer said she, administrators and members of the Board of Education went on a site visit to Ridgefield schools to observe the system in place there, which features school resource officers at multiple schools. Palmer spoke to the Ridgefield superintendent and his staff to assess the value of having an SRO at Staples.

“It’s hard to say what hasn’t happened, but they have noted that while they’ve had school resource officers, they’ve had fewer issues in the school, fewer issues with adolescents in the community,” Palmer said.

According to Palmer, the SRO would replace the existing DARE officer, who would be phased out. The SRO would primarily serve in a preventative, proactive and protective capacity, according to Palmer.

“The SRO is going to see things and allow us to intervene to keep students safe,” the superintendent said.

Chief of Police Foti Koskinas, who was at the meeting along with other officers, said he understood the point of view of parents worried about increased police presence in the school, but he assured the board the job of an SRO is not primarily law and order.

“The No. 1 priority of our department is to treat arrest as a last resort when it comes to our youth,” Koskinas said. Instead, the police chief said the goal is to open up channels of communication between students and staff.

Other districts, too, are reviewing school safety after the recent school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

In Darien, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson wants the Board of Education to continue the conversation, specifically by considering the addition of an SRO at Middlesex Middle School in response to “renewed interest in addressing school safety.” Darien High School already boasts a police presence.

“It starts with the Board of Education to decide what, if anything, they want to do to enhance school security in schools,” Stevenson said, after the Monday Board of Selectmen meeting at which she raised the possibility of a budget request for an additional SRO. “I think the community wants these things to happen.”

Daien Board of Education Chairwoman Tara Ochmann said before the board’s Tuesday meeting she is aware administrators have had “preliminary” conversations on the role, but it has not yet come to the board. In preparing the budget, the board and school administrators had not explored the option, though Stevenson said it’s been a topic of discussion for several years.

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“The district, and I believe all of the leadership in Darien, puts the safety and well-being of children at the forefront of our priorities,” Ochmann said.

Superintendent of Schools Dan Brenner began Tuesday’s meeting by addressing concerns over school safety, noting that to elucidate all the ways in which administrators have worked to make Darien schools safe would be “counterproductive” and potentially harmful to students and staffs.

Brenner did say that he has worked closely with Darien police to implement safety precautions and will review procedures with police this week to look for further enhancements. He did not mention the middle school SRO referenced by Stevenson.

In Westport, parents and community members in Monday’s crowd were mostly in favor of the proposal, with many advocating for SROs in all Westport schools, in addition to Staples.

Representative Town Meeting member Christine Meiers-Schatz, while in favor of additional safety measures, worried that adding police in schools was like “putting a Band-Aid on a severed leg” and that money could be better spent elsewhere to keep Westport students and staff safe.

“Nothing truly shows that SROs would make our schools safer. According to the Congressional Research Service, there aren’t any studies with sufficient methodological rigor to conclusively measure the effect of SROs,” Meiers-Schatz said. The Staples parent advocated instead for better mental health resources.

“I am generally in favor of all safety, health and wellness measures, including SROs,” she said.

“I fully support SROs. But if the safety of our students is a priority for the district, SROs are not enough, and to the extent that adding SROs precludes town funding for initiatives that could be more effective in keeping our children alive and safe, I think it needs further consideration.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1

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