LOWVILLE — A revised school resource officer contract with Lewis County school districts will go to the full county board for approval on Aug. 2.
“We had a very productive meeting, I thought, with the school superintendents and the sheriff and the SROs,” said General Services Committee Chair Ian W. Gilbert, R-New Bremen, during the committee’s meeting Tuesday.
The proposal from South Lewis Central School District Superintendant Douglas E. Premo and other district officials, Mr. Gilbert said, “was the suggestion of moving our SRO model to a 100% funding model.”
Under the new contract, schools will cover the salary and health insurance costs for the Lewis County sheriff’s deputy assigned as their SRO for as long as they work in that position for the full calendar year, not just the school year.
The county will pay for the “legacy costs” after any of the officers retire, which include health insurance and retirement payments that extend for the rest of that person’s life and tend to grow in expense over time.
Deputies can retire after 20 years of service and Sheriff Michael P. Carpinelli has said he only appoints deputies to SRO positions who have experience on the force and live in or near the community they will serve.
According to Mr. Gilbert, the new model will have the resource officers working the entirety of the school year — including for summer school. Superintendents agreed the officers will report to the sheriff for recreation patrol on the days when students are not on schools campuses including seasonal breaks.
The officers will have on average about 25 fewer days to dedicate to recreation patrol under the new agreement after vacation time and other paid days off are considered, said county attorney Joan E. McNichol, although Mr. Premo said that the actual number of days will vary by district.
The contract language that would have enabled the county to remove an SRO from their position without consulting the district if the officer does not log a certain number of recreation patrol hours was removed in the new version of the contract.
“I like the idea of leaving the trail safety, the recreation safety, just out of this discussion completely because I think that’s ended up muddying the waters a lot and I think with the contracts we drafted up, it put a real burden on the schools when they really had no control over what was going on with their own operations,” Mr. Gilbert told the committee.
Unlike in previous years in which the two school districts that had SROs — South Lewis and Harrisville — each negotiated their own agreement, this year, with the addition of Copenhagen Central School District, the schools negotiated as a unit.
“I think this is what we really need. A 12-month model gives us the coverage during the summer months where schools have really started to have a lot of activity which has changed over the years,” Mr. Premo said in an interview after the meeting. “Ultimately our goal is to try to have an SRO any time there’s a large number of students on campus, so I think this model is going to serve that purpose for us.”
According to the district office, Harrisville only has about 20 elementary and middle school students in its summer school program because high school students attend summer school at Carthage Central. Copenhagen Central has more than 100 students on campus over the summer, and at South Lewis there are about 514 students, split between summer school, a theater program and the summer recreation program.
Not all schools in the county are interested in having SROs.
Lowville Academy leadership has said in the past that they do not feel they need an SRO primarily because of the availability of the village police, while Beaver River Central School District is the only district in the county that has employed a school safety officer and increased mental health support, a trend that is becoming increasingly popular around the state and nationally.
Beaver River Superintendent Todd G. Green said his district is “leaning toward” switching to an SRO, but that they “aren’t there yet.”
Although SRO programs were first initiated in the United States in the 1950s, the placement of sworn armed officers in schools surged after the Columbine, Colorado, school shooting in 1999 that killed 13 and wounded 21, according to the state Bar Association’s history of SROs available online.
According to information provided by Brian K. Forte, the executive director of New York’s Police Juvenile Officers Association, to the state School Boards Association newsletter editor in chief Eric D. Randall, the number of SROs in New York schools doubled from 200 to 400 in 2019 in response to the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 and injured 17 others.
Like at Parkland, the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 21 people, SROs were employed by the school districts and on duty when the shooters arrived but did not stop the teenagers from completing their plans. They remained outside of the schools when the shootings began.
A number of studies over the past five years — including a working paper published in October by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University on a study conducted by SUNY Albany and RAND Corp. that examined school-level data provided by the U.S. Department of Education from 2014 to 2018, have been used to evaluate the impacts of SRO placements. The study published in October found “no evidence that SROs prevent school shootings or reduce more serious firearm-related offenses.”
Research has found, however, that SROs are effective at stopping other forms of in-school violence like fights.
The superintendents in Lewis County believe the role of the officers is “so much more than that … from relationship-building, to dealing with small incidents, to volatile incidents, to those big incidents that everyone pays attention to more so than the day to day,” Mr. Premo said.
During a June interview, Harrisville Central School District Superintendent Robert N. Finster said that the SRO has been especially helpful when families have issues involving law enforcement. Harrisville’s SRO has reached out to students if needed, Mr. Finster said, or has kept their ear to the ground to detect trouble that might be brewing in a way that would not be possible for teachers or counselors.
Because the final contract up for legislators’ approval has changed, it will be offered for a one-year term so that lessons may be learned and the agreement altered if necessary before a long-term, multi-year contract goes into place, as recommended by board chair Lawrence L. Dolholf, R-Lyons Falls, during the committee meeting.
Mr. Gilbert said he believes the contract is a good compromise for the districts and the county, but acknowledges it “leaves open this big … problem for our trail system with our recreation patrol. At least this way we don’t have to keep bringing the schools into it.”
“Do I like every single thing (about the new contract)? No … but I can live with 70% of it,” he said, adding that he believes the contract will be approved by the board.