Detective Chip Yeaton used to be a one-man department, the only school resource officer for the Canton Public Schools.
This school year, the number of resource officers has quadrupled, highlighting not only a heightened concern about mass shootings and other catastrophes, but a desire to work with at-risk students at an earlier age.
Yeaton, who used to cover Canton High and Galvin Middle School, now focuses on the high school. Sergeant Charles Rae and Officer Ted Lehan are working at Galvin, while Officer Scott Connor spends two days a week as liaison to Blue Hills Regional Technical School. Rae also oversees the resource officers.
According to Police Chief Kenneth Berkowitz, who devised the plan and appointed the three new officers, having this large a program in a town with 3,300 students is rare, but necessary.
“The world is a lot different than when any of us grew up,” Berkowitz said, mentioning school shootings, crimes against children, and exposure to undesirable content on the Internet. “Over the last couple of years, we decided part of our strategy should be an early intervention program at the middle school to deal with truancy, kids not doing well in school, bullying, alcohol or drug abuse, and kids having sex at a young age.”
Other districts will be looking at Canton’s program as a model for expanding their own, said Berkowitz.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not track the size of school resource officer programs, but some police chiefs said they might expand theirs.
‘When you get into this type of work, you wear many more hats.’
Milton Police Chief Richard Wells said he does not know of any high schools in the area that do not have a school resource officer, but having them at a middle school is much rarer.
In the coming months, Wells said he expects to try to expand his town’s program to two officers from one, though both would work mainly in the high school.
“We’ve done a ton of work with the schools since [the] Newtown [school shooting] happened last year,” Wells said.
Dedham Police Chief Michael d’Entremont said his department has one school resource officer, but he also is considering expansion.
In addition to protecting students from physical harm, Berkowitz and others said they believe improving security will improve a school’s performance.
“If you have anxiety for your personal safety, you won’t be able to go to any place and function as well as you would if you felt safe and secure,” Berkowitz said.
Canton High School principal Derek Folan agreed, saying: “What I see nowadays is that school safety is one of the top priorities of parents.”
According to Canton Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Granatino, parents and residents in general showed their support for the expansion by overwhelmingly approving it last year.
Like Berkowitz, Granatino said early intervention can alleviate problems the police were seeing in high school.
“If you wait until high school age, a lot of habits have already been formed and decisions have been made,” Granatino said.
Galvin Middle School principal William Conard said that beyond the safety aspects, the program will help students build connections with police.
“The word I keep on hearing is ‘relationship,’ ” Conard said. “A lot of building relationships with kids is helping to make sure those kids don’t fall through the cracks.”
For Yeaton, having more resource officers means he can have more one-on-one meetings with students who might be at risk of getting involved with drugs or other problems.
“When you get into this type of work, you wear many more hats, sometimes as a guidance counselor, sometimes as a teacher, too, and that very much makes us feel a part of the culture,” Yeaton said.
Lehan said the past few weeks have helped students get accustomed to seeing the officers throughout the school.
“We’re there when the buses drop off students, during lunches, gym class, when they are out switching classes, and at the end of the day,” Lehan said. “It lets them see us and come up to talk to us. From there we hope to get in the classrooms.”
Berkowitz said that while an increased police presence could help during a mass shooting, having one or two armed officers in a large building like a school is not foolproof. Other safety initiatives are underway.
Security systems, including cameras, have been updated, according to Connor. School resource officers have also been charged with helping implement the ALICE active shooter response program for answering emergencies such as school shootings. The officers have provided advice on security and surveillance systems, helped make evacuation plans, and run drills and training programs.
During the past year, a version of ALICE has been fully implemented, said Berkowitz.
ALICE, developed by a Texas couple, stands for alert, lock-down, inform, counter, evacuate. It involves barricading doors, evacuating parts of the building, and using the school’s communications systems to inform those in the building where an attacker might be.