Budget constraints nix high school police officer

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School has no school resource police officer. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

After more than a year of planning, and in the wake of security concerns arising from the Sandy Hook elementary school killings, planning to establish a school funded police officer based at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School fell victim to unexpected competing budget claims, during this year’s budget writing process, according to school administrators, health advocates, and police officers involved in the planning.

While there is still a possibility the position could be funded by a state or federal grant, the high school’s $17.6 million budget for the 2014 fiscal year does not include any funding for a school resource officer. There has been no school resource officer at the high school for the past year.

High school principal Steve Nixon said the decision was based entirely on financial necessity. “We still think it’s a good idea, it’s something we’re pursuing,” Mr. Nixon said. “We haven’t totally ruled it out yet. It’s not something we’re ever ruling out.”

But Island police officers are skeptical, and they question the school administration’s priorities.

“I was pretty upset when we went through all that work and it was taken off the table,” Oak Bluffs police Chief Erik Blake said. “It kind of died real quick on the vine. It wasn’t very high on their priority list.”

Chief Blake said his professional relationship with school administrators is very good, but he is critical of school administrators who have failed to notify police about thefts, or when administrators or teachers have been less than cooperative with police as they investigated crimes involving students.

The Dukes County Health Council’s Youth Task Force (YTF), which was involved in recent planning sessions, advocates a full-time school resource officer at the high school. “We were more than disappointed,” executive director Theresa Manning said. “Steve Nixon was 100 percent behind getting it into the school budget. I think we’re really close to that happening.”

Different perspectives

Mr. Nixon said he fully supports a school resource officer based at the high school.

“It’s something that fosters relationships between police and students,” Mr. Nixon said. “They develop relationships with the officer. It brings that bond together. You’re trying to establish a climate where the kids get used to the officer in the building. Having an officer here sporadically doesn’t accomplish that.”

Two officers who have served in recent years as school resource officers said their relationship with the school administration quickly became strained and uncomfortable, after Mr. Nixon became the principal in 2008.

Oak Bluffs police officer Dan Cassidy and Edgartown police officer Ryan Ruley both express strong interests in education and school policing and specialized training in the area. Both have been involved in high school activities, including coaching and substitute teaching. They were assigned to regular duty at the school by their town police departments, beginning in 2005, but they split their duty time between the school and regular patrols outside the school. During the time Officer Ruley was at the high school, he was an officer in the Aquinnah police department.

Both said the school’s budget considerations are only part of the issue.

“Funding to me is no excuse,” Officer Ruley said. “When you have a budget that size, it’s a fraction of a percentage. Safety and security is at the beginning of the list. We can’t have education or self esteem or any of that until we have safety.”

Officer Ruley pointed to the Edgartown school, by contrast. An Edgartown police officer is assigned to the school during the entire school day, four days per week.”For something as important as this issue, you can always work something out,” Officer Cassidy said. “I don’t think the budget was a deciding factor.”

Mr. Nixon said the decision was strictly budgetary. He said he didn’t know why the police officers would say otherwise.

“We got a special education number for residential placement that was a lot higher than we anticipated, in excess of $500,000. “When we saw the bottom line had jumped to 5.6 percent, we knew any other additions would make the budget unmanageable.”

Signs of strain

Officer Cassidy cited several examples where he thought cooperation between police and school administrators was lacking. He said establishing a police office in the high school became a point of contention. He said when he and Officer Ruley asked for an office where they might meet with students and teachers in confidence, the school gave them a desk in a hallway with a computer that did not work.

As another example, he said when two school administrators attended an off-Island conference on school resource officers, he and Officer Ruley were asked not to go.

Officer Cassidy cited a routine request he made for yearbook pictures with students names.

“It was like pulling teeth to get that kind of information,” Officer Cassidy said.

Both officers cited a divide in the school, between teachers and administrators who used the officers as teaching and authority resources, and those who were sensitive to armed police officers inside the school on a regular basis.

“Some teachers really appreciate us up there, some teachers and administrators find it intrusive,” Officer Cassidy said. “I think certain people are uncomfortable with the presence of police officers there. More than one person that works up there asked us, could you leave your gun in the cruiser.”

“We felt like we had a lot of support from students and teachers,” Officer Ruley said. “We did education classes in health and wellness. We taught several times in introduction to law. Unfortunately, with the change in administration, we just had a difference in philosophy. I don’t think Dan (Cassidy) and I ever came to an agreement (with the school administration) about what the program should actually be.”

Chief Blake said he is well aware of the school’s sensitivity to a balance between education and law enforcement.

“I get it,” Chief Blake said. “I get that it’s not really appropriate unless there’s an immediate danger, for police officers to enter classrooms and drag kids out in handcuffs. But there have been times when IPods or phones were stolen. Certain things aren’t reported to the police that should be reported. I don’t feel there’s a palpable angst against police, I just think they want to handle things in house. The police department should be involved a little more.”

On the same page

The Youth Task Force supported the latest effort to establish a school resource officer, and worked with police and school administrators to iron out issues of jurisdiction, salary, supervision, and a hiring process that involved both the school and police. Though the cost of school resource officer program was not finalized, Mr. Nixon said the groups used a working figure of $90,000 to $100,000 for salary, benefits, and operating costs of a full-time officer based in the school.

Ms. Manning, who is the wife of Aquinnah police Sergeant Paul Manning, said after more than a year of meeting, all the stakeholders were in general agreement and ready to move forward, before unexpected costs changed the discussion.

“The relationship between police and the school is vastly improved,” Ms. Manning said. “We need to find the money, and find the right person.”

School superintendent Jim Weiss said he strongly supports a school funded full-time resource officer.”It gives us a resource in the high school that can teach classes in law, public safety, those kinds of things,” Mr. Weiss said. “It’s a presence if there’s a real problem to help us handle it. For our students, it helps them see police in a different way, more as a part of our community, someone they can go to.”

Mr. Weiss said he was unaware of friction between police officers and the school administration, except that the school wanted a dedicated officer.

“The only friction that I can attest to,” Dr. Weiss said, “is that we really wanted a full-time officer, not someone who could be pulled out at any time.”