A school resource officer does a lot more than just wield a gun, Joel Barlow High School parent Diane MacLean said at Tuesday night’s Region 9 Board of Education meeting.
MacLean works as an SRO in a neighboring town.
“It’s less about the armed security and more about the relationships and being proactive in the school to help the community be safe and feel that security,” she said.
MacLean was one of about 50 parents, students and local residents who attended the meeting at Joel Barlow High School in Redding on Feb. 20, to voice concerns about school safety.
While Barlow — a school of almost 890 students — has three security staff members during the day and one on duty at night, it does not have a school resource officer. No one at the school is trained as a police officer and none of the security guards at the school carry weapons.
About a dozen people spoke in the public comment portion of the meeting. Most of them made reference to the recent shooting in Florida that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
There are currently SROs at both Redding elementary and middle schools, as well as one at Weston High School.
MacLean said an SRO does a lot in a school toward making students and staff feel safe, as well as identifying those who have mental health issues.
“SROs do everything a police officer would do, but then some,” she said.
MacLean assists in all lockdown and lockout drills, is on hand for mentoring, and works closely with the school psychologist and social workers.
“SROs are just another layer of protection and other support system,” MacLean said.
Cynthia Roy of Redding, who was also strongly in support of getting an SRO, spoke of what she said is a vaping epidemic at Barlow.
“My son wouldn’t go into the public bathroom for three weeks,” she said, saying students were vaping in there.
Facing school administrators, Roy said if nothing is going to be done about getting an SRO, the issue would be addressed legally.
However, Buster Whaley, a sophomore at Barlow, had an opposite view. He said he doesn’t think the school should get an SRO because he is afraid of the possibility of innocent people getting shot. “Feeling safe is not necessarily the same as being safe,” he said.
He posed a scenario in which there was an active shooter at Barlow and, just like the Florida school shooter, was wearing his school’s colors to blend in with other students.
“Imagine if the security officer hears that the shooter has been identified as wearing a black-and-gold hoodie (Barlow’s school colors). Imagine the officers see someone who fits the loose description of the shooter running down the hallway alone, wearing these colors,” Buster said. “What happens if they shoot that kid and it’s the wrong person?” he said.
One parent expressed her concern about unfairly targeting students who are mentally ill as perpetrators, and another recommended that all teachers at Barlow get trained to carry a gun.
Aside from those who spoke at the meeting, there was a large reaction to the issue on Facebook. In response to a post by Redding resident Laura Mars on the Joel Barlow Parents Facebook page, which said, “I think we need an officer at the high school,” there were more than 100 comments.
One of these comments was from a former Barlow student who wrote that she never felt particularly safe at Barlow in regard to security staff, lockdown procedures and prevention strategies. She said, however, that maybe the answer is not more police in schools but rather more mental health counselors who can identify problems before they escalate to a mass shooting.
In earlier correspondence, school Superintendent Thomas McMorran said he believed the current security structure in place at Barlow is sufficient.
“Barlow has three security staff members, all of whom have worked at the high school for more than a decade. They know the students well, are frequently circulating in the hallways and common areas, and even have a schedule for checking on the restrooms,” he wrote. “They can name almost all of the students.”
He further said Barlow has a strong, positive relationship with the Redding Police Department, which responds as needed when the school calls for help with any situation.
If Barlow were to incorporate an SRO, the school “would almost certainly have to let two of our security staff go, and given the active role they play in the life of the school, that might make us less secure,” McMorran said. “It’s not that we are opposed to an SRO; it’s that we are confident that the structure we have in place is what we need to continue to have the good discipline and positive school culture Barlow enjoys.”
McMorran said many people think the presence of a police officer will deter undesirable behavior, “and there is truth in that, but we educators also believe in the role of counseling, school climate, inclusion, an active athletic and extracurricular life during which coaches and advisers can get to know kids, and the healthy functioning of a caring school that allows for the early identification and intervention students need far before they engage in activity that needs a cop.”
“Friendly but vigilant security guards are part of our plans to ensure the high school is safe and inviting,” McMorran added.
The topic of security at the high school is an especially sensitive one for Redding resident Mia Capella.
While Capella currently has a junior at Barlow, when her older daughter, Sara, was a freshman, Sara overheard another student making disturbing remarks, and reported the student to school administrators, according to a Redding Pilot article on June 22, 2016.
The article said Mia was shocked when lawsuit paperwork started showing up in her mailbox months later.
The Capellas were sued for defamation of character by the other student’s family, according to the Pilot article.
Mia convinced legislators on the Judiciary Committee to protect those in Connecticut who report threats. As of Oct. 1, 2016, a new law now protects those in Connecticut who report possible threats.
The law, called An Act Concerning the Zero-Tolerance Safe School Environment Act, says, “Any individual who reports an act of threatening … shall have an absolute defense to any civil action brought as a result of having made such a report …”
“My story speaks for itself,” Capella said in a phone conversation.
“There are children who have these characteristics (as the student Sara reported on) in our school and nobody is doing anything,” Capella said. “Had we had an SRO, this situation might not have escalated the way it did.”
After an incident like the one in Florida “happens at your school, you would anticipate it is important to have a trained individual there,” she said. “It’s like common sense to me.”
In response to the community’s concerns on the issue of school safety, there will be a community forum on safe schools at Joel Barlow High School at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 27.