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Do we still need police officers in Rhode Island schools?

The idea of School Resource Officers has been debated for decades, and questions about the effectiveness of having police officers in schools have persisted. Now, the role may be evolving.

Officer Keith Medeiros and his police comfort dog Brody walk the halls at Rockwell Elementary School in Bristol, Rhode Island.Michael Jones/Rhode Island PBS

This story was produced in collaboration with Rhode Island PBS Weekly. Watch the episode here.

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BRISTOL, R.I. – It’s 8 a.m. on a Thursday, and children are getting off the bus at Rockwell Elementary School.

Brody, a 3-year-old chocolate English lab, is sitting on the sidewalk. The elementary school students’ eyes light up.

“Hi, Brody!” they shout as they exit the bus. Some linger for extra pets before they head into class.

Brody is a police dog, a sworn K9 officer of the Bristol Police Department. But unlike a typical K9, he doesn’t sniff for drugs or take down bad guys. He’s more into lying down, receiving belly rubs, and listening. (“Please pet me,” a patch on his K9 vest reads.)

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Brody, a certified comfort and therapy dog, works alongside Patrolman Keith Medeiros, the school resource officer for all three elementary schools in the Bristol-Warren regional school district.

“Our main focus is just to make everybody have a better day,” Medeiros said. On a recent visit to Rockwell, during recess students careened off of jungle gyms and slides to run over and pet Brody.

Officer Keith Medeiros and comfort dog Brody greet students getting off the bus at Rockwell Elementary School.Michael Jones/Rhode Island PBS

He also has a more serious role, one that Medeiros says Brody often performs better than humans: calming students down in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Even with supervising adults and resources available, “We’ve had kids that were in crisis that could take 20, 30, 45 minutes, maybe even an hour to get them back into a classroom,” Medeiros said in an interview with the Globe and Rhode Island PBS. “Within five minutes of being with Brody, they’re ready to go back into a classroom.”

Medeiros and Brody are part of the evolving nature of policing in schools in Rhode Island. The effectiveness of School Resource Officers, or SROs, have been debated for years, but their presence in schools has persisted over the decades.

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Unlike some of his fellow SROs, Medeiros opts not to wear his full police uniform, dressing down instead in a Bristol Police quarter-zip and khakis. He’s still armed with a gun and ready to protect the school if needed, but the outfit – and the dog – make him more approachable to students.

“Bringing Brody into that school, all of a sudden I was having a dialogue with kids that I’d never interacted with,” said Medeiros, who has been a school resource officer since 2012.

It was Medeiros’ idea to get Brody in 2020, which was green-lighted by his police chief, Kevin Lynch. COVID school started the day Brody arrived in Rhode Island as a puppy.

When in-person school resumed, it became even more clear that students could use the help of a therapy dog.

“They had a really tough time coming back after being home and just being taught on a computer screen,” Medeiros said. “Kids that didn’t want to come to school, we could help them. We could get them to be calm. We could have them walk Brody into the school. And I think that without Brody, some of those kids probably wouldn’t have ever come back.”

Children on the playground surround K9 Brody, a police comfort dog, at Rockwell Elementary school in Bristol, Rhode Island.Michael Jones/Rhode Island PBS

Medeiros, a 20-year veteran of the police department, is clear on what is – and isn’t – his job inside schools.

“If a child’s wearing a hat, if a child is walking the halls, it’s not an SRO’s job to tell them to take their hat off or tell them to get back to class,” Medeiros said. “We only enforce laws that are broken. We’re not there to enforce policies that are broken with the school department.”

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But groups including the Rhode Island ACLU, Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC, Providence Student Union and others have frequently accused officers of overstepping that duty and initiating unnecessary altercations with students for minor offenses. The groups oppose having police officers in schools.

“Teachers … will use police officers as a crutch or an opportunity to have outside discipline,” Harrison Tuttle, the executive director of the Black Lives Matter RI PAC, told the Globe. “So instead of dealing with the discipline inside of school, they will go to this police officer or this SRO who will then be able to handle the situation.”

“And of course, that gets murky when it comes to what the role of an SRO is,” Tuttle continued. “Is it the role of an SRO to keep the school safe, or is it to have students that are having bad behavior go outside and enter criminal justice systems?”

Police officers have been stationed in schools in some capacity since the 1950s, but exploded in prevalence after the 1999 Columbine school shooting in Colorado. The federal government provided grants to hire SROs, helping them become widespread. There were 23,400 school resource officers in the United States in 2020, according to a new U.S. Department of Justice report released last month.

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In Rhode Island there are about 65 school resource officers, according to the R.I. School Resource Officers Association and a Globe survey of superintendents. The officers work for their local police departments and still answer to the police chief, despite working inside the schools.

Most are assigned to high schools and middle schools, though some districts have officers in elementary schools, or rotate their SROs to different buildings throughout the day.

The SRO association formed just last year, the first such organization of school cops in Rhode Island. The goal is to unify the officers, provide free training, and share resources among the state’s school police officers, said Sergeant Richard Parenti, the association’s board chair and a school resource officer in Scituate, Rhode Island.

“We try to act as a platform of networking and communication to prevent school policing programs from operating in silo conditions,” Parenti said. “Previously, if you were an SRO you were basically on an island.”

There’s been a “dramatic change” in the landscape of school policing in Rhode Island over the past 5 to 10 years, Parenti said.

For one, Parenti said, police chiefs are more carefully selecting and training school resource officers who are the best fit to work with children and teens, in contrast with prior practice when the SRO was selected by seniority.

“It’s really part of a full-service operation of an agency to a community,” Parenti said. “It’s not a job where a guy who is close to retirement is looking to ride out the last few years.”

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The “vast majority” of departments have now adopted this new practice when appointing SROs, said Sid Wordell, the executive director of the R.I. Police Chiefs Association.

A University of Rhode Island poll released in October asked Rhode Island adults about a variety of policy topics, including whether they would support legislation providing state funding for police officers in public schools.

A majority of those polled — 57 percent — either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported the measure, while 15 percent strongly or somewhat opposed to the measure. Another 22 percent were neutral, and 6 percent were not sure.

Rhode Island superintendents surveyed by the Globe gave favorable reviews of the police officers currently operating in their schools. None said they want to remove or decrease the number of officers, and roughly half of those who responded to questions about their SRO programs said they would like to have more officers — ideally in every school, some said.

But the school leaders’ acknowledged that is unlikely to happen. Rhode Island would need hundreds more officers to staff all 310 public schools in the state.

“Our 4 SROs are spread pretty thin,” said Cranston Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse, whose district has 24 schools. “Historically, our SROs have had a positive relationship with our community and are seen as part of our district-wide system of safety and support for our students.”

Providence Superintendent Javier Montañez did not answer repeated questions about whether he would like more or fewer SROs in the state’s largest district, where there are currently 5 officers for 37 schools.

In Pawtucket, another large urban district that has 5 school resource officers and 16 schools, Superintendent Patricia Royal said she’s happy with the current level.

Lincoln Superintendent Lawrence Filippelli, a member of the Rhode Island School Safety Committee, is a proponent of having SROs to protect schools, especially with school shooting incidents continuing across the U.S.

“If there is a true act of violence and someone is trying to gain access to that school and do harm to staff or students, having someone there who can respond in seconds rather than minutes, saves lives,” Filippelli said in an interview.

An officer in every school in Lincoln would be nice, he said. But, “having an SRO at every level really adds to the budget. So if a community is going to get behind it, they have to get behind it with funding as well.”

State legislators did approve more funding for school resource officers in 2018, as part of a pilot program that has now ended.

The program, which covered half the cost of hiring a new police officer at a middle or high school, doled out a total of $879,936 over three years, according to a House spokesperson. It was initially budgeted for $2 million in the first year alone, but participation was lower than anticipated.

The lower uptake was most likely because police departments didn’t have the officers to spare, Wordell said.

“The vast majority of police departments are understaffed right now,” he said. “It’s been a real issue in getting recruits.”

Only three Rhode Island communities – New Shoreham, Little Compton, and Jamestown – have no school resource officer program, though Jamestown has a designated police liaison. (Jamestown and Little Compton do not have high schools.)

Little Compton Superintendent Laurie Dias-Mitchell said she hopes to convince the School Committee, which voted in 2019 against getting an SRO for the town’s K-8 school, to reverse course.

Parenti said he is not aware of any charter schools with SRO programs.

Much of the opposition to school resource officers has been led by students from the Providence Student Union, who run the “counselors, not cops” campaign. (The group did not make anyone available for an interview for this report.)

Tuttle, who says he takes his cues from the youth groups, said schools should be focused on hiring more mental health professionals rather than police officers.

“We believe that no kid, no matter what they do, barring it being a really serious offense, deserves to be met with the police officer with a gun,” Tuttle said. “We have incredible mental health professionals all throughout the state that are able to de-escalate without a gun.”

“If we had SROs that were without a gun, we would be more supportive of that,” Tuttle added.

Rhode Island SROs are armed, as are 99.9 percent of school resource officers nationwide, according to the recent DOJ report.

“Of course they should be armed,” Filippelli said. “Because how are they going to neutralize a threat if they are not armed?”

“There’s absolutely a need for more counselors and school psychologists,” Filippelli added. “No question about it. There is an equal need for school resource officers, in my opinion.”

Getting rid of the police officers in the schools would not free up any funds in the school budget for more counselors, Filippelli said, since the officers are paid by the police department and would likely just get a different assignment.

Like many districts, Lincoln has an agreement called a “memorandum of understanding” with the Lincoln Police Department, defining the SRO’s role as a “limited one” and spelling out which types of incidents – such as physical fights, violence, weapons, and the sale of drugs – should rise to police involvement.

“It is not the SRO’s role to enforce school disciplinary rules and policies, or punish students for misbehavior,” the agreement states. “SRO involvement should not be requested in a situation that can be safely and appropriately handled by the school district’s internal disciplinary procedures.”

But those lines have been crossed in Rhode Island, according to the ACLU’s executive director Steven Brown.

He pointed to a 2018 incident at Narragansett High School, for which a lawsuit was settled earlier this year, where the school resource officer took a student to the ground and arrested him after the teenager gave the officer the middle finger in a hallway.

The school district paid the now-former student $75,000 in the settlement earlier this year, but did not admit fault. The officer, Kyle Rooney, remained the high school’s SRO after the incident until he retired this year.

“I maintain my position that, in light of the totality of the circumstances, Officer Rooney’s actions were lawful and appropriate,” Narragansett police chief Sean Corrigan told the Globe in an email. “I view the settlement as a business decision made in response to the substantial risk and expense of litigation.”

Like many other school districts, Narragansett’s SRO policy does not allow the police officer to be used as a disciplinarian.

“We see incidents all the time of SROs getting involved in menial disputes with kids who may be engaged in disciplinary infractions but clearly are not involved in criminal activity,” Brown said.

He said there should be clear limits in state law about what police officers can do in schools, along with oversight of those standards.

“The schools often have very little control over the SROs,” Brown said. “I don’t want to cast this universal condemnation of SROs and suggest that they’re all doing these terrible things. Some are, and there aren’t safeguards in place to prevent that from happening. That’s why we think uniform standards are really important.”

Tuttle said the BLM RI PAC believes having police officers in schools harms students of color. But he acknowledged the wide differences in opinion on the matter, bringing up a proposal last year by a Black school principal – state Representative Nathan Biah – to increase the number of police officers in schools. (The measure did not pass.)

Tuttle noted data is not clear that having a police officer in a school actually prevents violence, and other solutions should be discussed.

“We’re not opposed to a model in which police officers get called to schools whenever there’s an issue,” he said. “We understand the difficulties that schools go through, whether it’s a person having a gun inside the school or someone that is a threat to others.”

For Medeiros, who in his spare time convinces other police departments to get therapy dogs, the new model of school policing is working.

“We’re not there to arrest kids, we’re not there to lock people up, like some people people think,” he said. “We would rather educate a child and let them know what the effects of drugs, alcohol, their actions, fighting, acting out. We want to help them. We don’t want to hurt them.”

He reflect on the first time he saw Brody “work,” and what an impact it had.

A student was having a crisis, and was surrounded by a teacher, principal and social worker. Medeiros approached with Brody and asked the child if he’d like to hold Brody’s leash. Within seconds, the student was on the floor petting the dog.

Medeiros said the child, who is autistic, had never eaten in the school cafeteria because of his sensitivity to sound. “So I asked on a whim – I got nothing to lose – ‘Do you want to go in the lunchroom and eat lunch with Brody? You can walk him there.’ And this child picked up his lunchbox, took Brody, we walked into the lunchroom, and it was the first time that he had ever eaten lunch in the lunchroom.”

“It was probably the highlight of my entire career,” Medeiros said, as Brody quietly snored underneath his chair. “And it was all because of him.”

K9 Brody, a police comfort dog, rests under a chair as Officer Keith Medeiros is interviewed by a reporter.Michael Jones/Rhode Island PBS

Steph Machado can be reached at steph.machado@globe.com. Follow her @StephMachado.