With a workload that includes everything from traffic control to writing hall passes for students, a school resource officer never faces exactly the same day twice. While keeping a school safe has always been the top priority, the focus on security sharpened on Dec. 14, 2012. That day, a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The shootings lasted less than 10 minutes before 20-year-old Adam Lanza turned one of his guns on himself.
“It was a wake-up call that it can happen in any town and in any place in America,” said Canton Detective Chip Yeaton, who works as a school resource officer at Canton High School. Yeaton, who also serves as the president of the Massachusetts Juvenile Police Officer’s Association – an organization that represents school resource officers – estimated that about 70 percent of school districts in the state have at least one police officer working in a school.
“I don’t think anybody walks around saying it’s not going to happen here,” said John Panica, who works as a school resource officer at Newton North High School. “I think people say it could, and as long as you’re prepared you’re able to deal with those things.”
Immediately after Sandy Hook, Reading police Officer Corey Santasky worked with the school district to review its building security, and spent time at schools to reassure children and parents that students were protected.
“After Sandy Hook, I went to all of the elementary schools every day and greeted the kids every morning to show them we’re there to help them and keep them safe,” he said.
While shootings are rare, violence at schools continues. Last October, a teacher was found stabbed to death on the grounds of Danvers High School and a 14-year-old student was later charged with her murder. In 2010, John Odgren was convicted of stabbing another student to death in 2007 — when he was 16 — in a bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School.
Locally, police point to the relationships they’ve built with students and teachers as proactive measures that have helped prevent possible mass shootings. In Marshfield, police got word of an attack planned for 2005 to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the April 20, 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 15 people dead. Three students who plotted a similar
attack in 2001 were thwarted in New Bedford.
But more often than not, school cops can be found in the halls chatting and listening to students. Some are plainclothes, and some, like Santasky, wear a uniform. Walking the halls of Reading High School, Santasky said he believes listening to kids can prevent major problems.
“My goal is to make sure they can trust me, that I’m a resource for them,” Santasky said.
As the call for schools to become safer has grown louder in the last year, districts such as Amesbury, Tewksbury, and Plymouth have added security officers in schools. In 2013, Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a program within the US Department of Justice dedicated to community policing, awarded $127 million in grants nationwide. In Massachusetts, Amesbury received $250,000, Fall River $1.25 million, and Tewksbury $125,000.
State Representative James M. Cantwell, who Behind an array of seashells collected by his children on the Cape, Detective Chip Yeaton, a school resource officer at Canton High, works at his desk. “I wish I had 128 cameras in the school,’’ he says. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff Behind an array of seashells collected by his children on the Cape, Detective Chip Yeaton, a school resource officer at Canton High, works at his desk. “I wish I had 128 cameras in the school,’’ he says.
Behind an array of seashells collected by his children on the Cape, Detective Chip Yeaton, a school resource officer at Canton High, works at his desk. “I wish I had 128 cameras in the school,’’ he says.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
“I wish I had 128 cameras in the school. The more eyes on the building, the better,” said Yeaton, as he looked at live images on his computer from some of the 64 cameras stationed at Canton High School.
In Plymouth, Police Chief Michael Botieri said the Sandy Hook shootings prompted the hiring of a fourth school resource officer, who was placed in a middle school. In addition, every school in the district is now being equipped with new video cameras that provide live real-time feeds for monitoring to police headquarters.
Botieri said the cameras and the officers are a better alternative than having armed guards at each school entrance. “It sends a better message that the schools are protected and that there’s someone on-site or available in a quicker fashion, because the bottom line is how quickly we can respond when then need us,” he said.
For decades, police officers have been stationed in Massachusetts schools — serving as role models and lecturing to classes on drugs and alcohol, bullying and, more recently, cyber activity such as sexting. Most appear to be masters of small talk: They schmooze with students to gain trust, pull lunch monitor duty like teachers, and walk a beat through the halls in between classes, trying to learn as many names of students as possible. Many even spend some of their weekends at schools, attending games, dances, and plays.
While they were always involved with security, such officers find that a central part of the job these days is to work with school officials and police and fire departments to help create and modify security plans for every school building. School cops get to know the layout of each school, prepare lockdown drills, and are increasingly adapting new policies in drills designed to save more lives in the event of an armed intruder breaking into the school.
This week, as hundreds of school resource officers gather for a two-day conference in Norwood to discuss school security and lockdown procedures, they’ll also learn about ALICE, a lockdown training drill that has been implemented by several Greater Boston school districts, including Canton, Reading, Winchester, Wilmington, and Waltham.
ALICE is an acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate. During traditional lockdown drills, students and staff are taught to barricade the door, turn the lights off, and crouch down. ALICE gives options during a lockdown, emphasizing evacuating the building if possible and recommending that under worst-case scenarios, noise and movement should be created in order to distract an attacker.
“We plan for the worst and hope for the best, and that’s the whole gamut. We have templates and floor plans,” said Winchester police Sergeant Dan Perenick, who serves as a middle-school student resource officer.
Tony Tierno, who has three sons in the Reading school system, sleeps better knowing that there’s a cop in the schools.
“There are a lot of kids who don’t always do the right things, so it helps the kids who do the right thing feel safer to have someone to talk to,” he said.
On a recent afternoon, Ariella and Arianna Lowe walked into Yeaton’s small, concrete-walled office at Canton High. The 17-year-old identical twins said they often walk in just to say hello to the officer.
“Chip’s our best friend,” said Arianna, as her sister stood by and nodded in agreement. “He’s easy to talk to. He’s not just here to protect us from violence, he’s also a good support system, too. We can talk and he’ll give us advice. It’s easy to trust him.”
After more small talk, the twins began to tease Yeaton after they learned it was his birthday.
“We could have brought you cupcakes,” said Arianna.
“You have to teach on your birthday?” asked Ariella.
“Go beat it!” Yeaton said, in mock anger.
“Peace,” said one of the twins.
Yeaton looked up at the students, slowly smiled, and handed the sisters a hall pass.Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com
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