SCASD vote puts school resource officers in the spotlight

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State High School Resource Officer John Aston guards the cafeteria Wednesday before the second wave of students arrives for lunch.

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Schools in the State College area have long used school resource officers, but a national debate over school safety has led to questions about how they are used.

On Monday, the board will vote on memoranda of understanding between the district and State College Borough and Patton Township to provide school resource officers. The memorandums of understanding will allow the three officers — two from State College and one from Patton Township — to remain on duty in the district.

The three officers represent an estimated cost to the district of $320,000, an increase of $20,000 from the 2021-22 school year.

The article sparked debate during public comment at a meeting of the Cultural Climate and Learning Committee on August 30, with parents divided over the presence of armed officers in schools. While some wanted the district to cut officers entirely, others called for additional officers to be assigned to elementary schools.

The officers are currently stationed at State High, the Delta Program and Park Forest Middle School. The memorandum of understanding on Monday’s agenda does not call for any change to this configuration.

“We talk about high schools and middle schools, but our most vulnerable population is our elementary schools,” said a parent at the Aug. 30 meeting in support of increased SRO presence.

Three commenters requested additional data and research on OARs and felt that the district should solicit more information about what students think about OARs. Researchers have found that black students feel less safe around police and are disproportionately likely to have negative interactions with police in schools.

“We need to look at what is the right thing and the best way to spend money as a district,” another parent said at the meeting.

SCASD also employs two full-time security guards at the high school as well as ten security guards from Standing Stone, a security consulting firm. Standing Stone also provides two security guards for each college.

With school safety in the spotlight across the country, parents and board members demanded clarification on the role of law enforcement in school buildings.

What is the role of an SRO?

SROs are officers employed by a law enforcement agency who are stationed at a school. They act as a liaison between the district and local law enforcement and provide security and deal with crimes committed on school property.

John Aston, an SRO working at State High, said he has no control over violations of school policy, which means most situations are handled by the district unless they escalate into a more serious crime.

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State High School Resource Officer John Aston shows off an assortment of vapes that have been confiscated from students. Abby Drey [email protected]

Juvenile detectives are called in to investigate cases involving minors, although Aston can help interview witnesses, write reports and assist on the case. In the five years Aston spent at State High, he said he never made an arrest.

Aston is also helping to monitor Safe2Say, the anonymous student tip line, for communicating with administrators and police about reports of crime, drug use, and mental health issues. Aston said it has used Safe2Say advice to request wellness checks for students in mental health crisis and can also notify administrators or counselors about cases affecting students or their families to help with provide context.

Aston also does safety education for students and staff, giving presentations in health classes, performing mock traffic stops for driver education students and informing the administration on emergency safety protocols.

A core part of Aston’s job is to educate students and staff on different emergency scenarios, like lockdown or run, hideout, combat situations. It teaches how to lock doors, create barricades, and how to react quickly in an emergency like a school shooting.

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John Aston State High School Resource Officer walks to the cafeteria as students arrive for lunch Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Abby Drey [email protected]

Why don’t SCASD elementary schools have ORS?

The board confirmed that under the memorandum of understanding, the Park Forest officer would regularly check on two of the elementary schools, but there would be no permanent officer at any of the elementary schools. Aston is on call for several other elementary schools but unable to leave high school during the day.

Although the National Association of School Resource Officers recommends one officer per 1,000 students, this is not feasible for every district. SCASD’s student population is close to 7,000 and more resource officers would be expensive.

Providing eight additional officers to staff elementary schools in the districts would also attract personnel from local police departments.

“There’s no way to staff eight schools every day, it’s impossible,” Aston said.

Local services regularly pass or check schools and have means of entering buildings in the event of an emergency.

How do SROs fit in with the district’s push for restorative justice?

SROs have long been at the center of the school-to-prison pipeline debate, board member Carline Crevecoeur said at the Aug. 30 meeting. A study of the non-profit organization Research for Action found that black and Hispanic students are disproportionately arrested and referred to law enforcement. Additionally, Pennsylvania districts with more students of color spent about three times as much on security.

But Aston opposed the concept of a school-to-jail pipeline, saying school resource officers in the district rely heavily on restorative justice through the Youth Support Committee, a Center County community organization that provides alternatives to first-time juvenile offenders. The student meets with the panel of community members and performs community service or an act of restitution to help them understand and atone. Graduation from the program clears the minor’s criminal record.

“I don’t agree with the philosophy of ‘we don’t want to control student interaction,'” Aston said. “We relied on this triad of mentoring students, being an informal leader and educator, and being there for safety.”

Aston says not every officer can become an SRO, it takes a certain type of personality and many hours of training. The board also interviews all incoming SROs, which Crevecoeur says is an essential part of the selection process.

“It’s important to me that all committee members feel safe and comfortable with SROs and I love that we can choose our SROs, that we can interview them and get to know them,” said said Crevecoeur.

MoUs with police departments are renewed annually, and Monday’s agenda says the district will use the Pennsylvania School Climate Survey “to collect safety and security data, including understood the perception of ORS in our schools and how best to use them throughout our district.”

The board of directors will meet on Monday at 7 p.m. in the offices of the Panorama Village.

Keely Doll is an education reporter and service reporter for the Center Daily Times. She previously worked for the Columbia Missourian and The Independent UK.

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