Warren County Sheriff’s Officers Thomas Murphy and John Marchello said it didn’t take long for students to come around to them.
“In the high school, it was initially a little standoffish because of the age bracket, I think,” Murphy said, “but they’ve warmed up.”
Marchello and Murphy, both Queensbury school resource officers, are two of the nearly two dozen school resource officers across Warren, Washington and Saratoga Counties halfway through their first year on campus.
Marchello, who is charge of the middle and elementary schools, said there was a bit of apprehension in the beginning, because it was the first time some students had interacted with a police officer, but within a month those feelings had disappeared.
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School resource officers have been around for decades, and their primary duty is to offer protection to the school district. However, many have additional duties, such as educating students on safety procedures and, in some cases, being the primary law enforcer.
The number of schools with an officer present has grown substantially since the late ‘90s, and 42 percent of schools in the country reported having a school resource officer in 2016, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.
School officials from several school districts said they were initially focused on the added sense of safety and security they thought the officers would provide, but were surprised at other benefits the officers brought with them.
South Glens Falls Superintendent Kristine Orr said she was very happy with the program and that Saratoga County Sheriff’s Officer Mark Stewart, the resource officer assigned to her district, was fitting in well.
“The impact was immediate,” Orr said. “I can’t quantify the informal conversations he’s having with students, but for me, the mentor and counselor role he’s played has been wonderful.”
Some superintendents also said the process of integrating the officers into their district has been simple.
Corinth Superintendent Mark Stratton said his district’s introduction has been smooth because the officer, Mark Nelson, was already deeply connected to the faculty and students.
“He has a son that’s actually in middle school here, so he knows a lot of the students already,” Stratton said. “He’s from this community, so he’s basically the perfect person you could have as your school resource officer.”
Stratton said he feels safer seeing a deputy’s car in the parking lot every morning, and that sense of security is spreading across the district. He also said Nelson’s job doesn’t end at protecting the buildings, but that he’s there as a resource to mentor children as well as a wealth of knowledge for teachers to tap into for help educating students.
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Nelson said the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office approached all of the school districts in the county in the spring of 2018 with an offer to bring an officer into each district at the beginning of this school year. Every district decided in favor of the offer, and now there are 11 officers across the nine districts, according to a sheriff’s office official.
Although superintendents expressed their enthusiasm for officers transcending the role of security guard, critics of school resource officers say they can make some students feel less safe and the counseling and mentoring work they do would be better left to someone who specializes in that area.
Marc Schindler, the director of the Justice Policy Institute, said officers are often more expensive than a social worker and a social worker is often more effective than an officer at being a resource students trust.
“You talk to good school resource officers, and often what you hear is, ‘I’m really like a social worker,’ and that’s great,” Schindler said, “but why don’t I just pay for a social worker then?”
Schindler also said there can be unintended consequences of having an officer in the school system, namely that students in those districts are often referred to the justice system rather than disciplinary issues being handled by the school.
“The reality is, and what the research suggests, is things that used to be dealt with in the principal’s office are more likely to get dealt with in the precinct,” Schindler said.
School districts are attempting to counteract this, though, and have begun preventing resource officers from participating in disciplinary proceedings, as Queensbury School District and others have demonstrated.
Marchello and Murphy both said Queensbury heavily emphasized they would be removed from the disciplinary system before they were ever hired by the district.
“They said I wouldn’t be investigating anything and that I wouldn’t be making any arrests,” Murphy said. “I read a lot about how we’re considered armed guards, but we’re so far from that.”
Schindler said separating the officers in a school from the discipline process is good policy, but unfortunately isn’t followed everywhere.
“If you’re going to have a school resource officer in a school, then you should do what those superintendents have done,” Schindler said. “They’re guarding against that unintended consequence.”
Schindler also said districts with this kind of policy need to make sure it’s airtight and in writing so the rules do not change with a new superintendent or officer.
Despite the concerns, reception to the new officers has been overwhelmingly positive according to Marchello and Murphy, who said they are regularly stopped by parents who want to say hello and thank them. School officials said they feel the same way after the officers’ first semester and don’t foresee changes anytime soon.
“I hope the program continues for a long time,” Stratton said.
Samuel Northrop is the education reporter for The Post-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.