Up-Island school committee resumes school resource officer debate

A number of repairs to the heating system at the Chilmark school have to be done. – MV Times file photo

The Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) school committee has resumed debate (SRO) in recent fiscal year 2015 (FY15) budget discussions about adding a full-time school resource officer. About one year ago, the school committee decided not to fund a full-time SRO in the FY14 budget, in order to continue its discussion and look at all of the options.

The subject came up again at a meeting two weeks ago, however, as the school committee began its initial review of the UIRSD’s draft $10.7 million FY15 budget. Superintendent of schools James Weiss noted that staffing costs are the driving factor in the proposed $10.7 million budget, an 8.49 percent increase over last year’s budget, including $80,000 for a proposed new full-time SRO.

The SRO debate took on new relevance last August, when Governor Deval Patrick signed, “An Act Relative to the Reduction of Gun Violence.” In addition to strengthening gun laws, the legislation also requires that every chief of police, in consultation with the superintendent and subject to funding, will assign at least one school resource officer to serve the city, town, or regional school district.

Mr. Weiss explained that the SRO position does not have to be full time, but it does require training. The budget includes an amount of $20,000 as a placeholder for the cost of sending possibly two officers off Island for training, depending on how the position is structured. Currently, police officers from the UIRSD’s member towns of Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury make random visits to the Chilmark and West Tisbury Schools, according to West Tisbury School principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt.

After a lengthy discussion, the committee members decided they needed more information on the subject of school resource officers before voting on certifying the budget on November 17.

Mr. Weiss said he will meet with both school principals and the three up-Island police chiefs on Friday to gather information for more discussion at the upcoming UIRSD school committee meeting on Monday, November 10.

“I believe that we will discuss who pays for the salary and benefits, how much time does it take for the SRO to really be part of the school community, and how would we divide up the position if it is one person for both schools,” he said in an email to The Times.

Careful consideration

The UIRSD school committee has been wrestling with the idea of adding a school resource officer since December 2012. Committee member Michael Marcus of West Tisbury first suggested it in the wake of shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The school committee continued to discuss it over several months in 2013, in consultation with up-Island police departments. During the committee’s FY14 budget discussions last October, Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt and Chilmark head of school Susan Stevens reported on comments they received from their school communities in regard to possibly adding a full-time SRO.

Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt said she conducted surveys among students in grades 6 through 8 and parents. Based on the many comments and questions she received, she said she would like more time to discuss and consider all the options. Ms. Stevens said the consensus in her school community was that a full-time school resource officer was not necessary at that time.

The school committee decided not to add the position to the FY14 budget and to continue the discussion.

Since then, Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt told The Times in a phone conversation yesterday, she has talked with police officers in other towns, particularly Edgartown, and has concluded that she would be in favor of the daily presence of a police officer in the up-Island schools.

“If a school resource officer only works for a couple of hours a day, dividing time between West Tisbury and Chilmark, and is not actively involved in the schools, I think it would be hard to maintain the momentum of building relationships with the students,” she said. “I’m looking at recommending that we have someone assigned at least half-time.”

Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt emphasized that discussions about what the SRO position would entail are still in the initial phases. “I think if the school committee decides to dedicate funding to it and it’s moving forward, designing a plan for the position and refining it through community input is probably more efficient and useful for coming up with a program that people feel comfortable with and will benefit our schools, as well,” she said.

No Island-wide standard

Law enforcement presence varies from school to school on Martha’s Vineyard. In a previous interview on the subject, Mr. Weiss said each school and police department has tried to develop the best possible solution for their situation.

The Island’s other elementary schools utilize part-time SROs. Edgartown police officers Joel DeRoche, David Rossi, and Stephanie Immelt share part-time SRO duties at Edgartown School. They split the week, working at the school while it is in session and then finishing up their shifts doing community police work.

At Tisbury School, Tisbury police officer Scott Ogden serves as an SRO for four hours a day, three days a week.

Last year, Oak Bluffs police officers began a simple, cost-effective plan to increase their presence at Oak Bluffs School by assigning a day shift officer to complete arrest reports or other clerical work in a small office near the gym and cafeteria.

The only full-time SRO in Island schools is Sergeant Michael Marchand at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), who was appointed through a memorandum of understanding between the Oak Bluffs Police Department, the town of Oak Bluffs, and MVRHS.

The MVRHS school committee approved $100,000 for salary and benefits for an SRO in the high school’s FY15 budget, approved by town meeting voters Island-wide last spring. The school committee voted unanimously in 2012 to explore creating the position of a full-time SRO. Plans for funding the position in the FY14 budget, however, were put on hold with news of unexpected increases in fixed costs that had to be covered.