Schools weighing pros and cons of police on campus

VINCENT – Washington County sheriff’s deputies could once again be a common sight at Warren High School as the board of education is considering offering them office space.

The arrangement – which would give deputies a place to file reports and do other work without returning to Marietta while providing an increased law enforcement presence at the high school – is one example of how area schools are reexamining their relationship with law enforcement after the Dec. 14 murders of 20 students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“We’ve talked about it off and on for probably a year or more,” Warren Principal Dan Leffingwell said. “I think Connecticut, unfortunately, probably provided the focus to say, ‘Hey, let’s quit talking about it, and let’s make it happen.'”

A resolution to provide the sheriff’s office with access to the former athletic director’s office in Building 6 is on the agenda for tonight’s Warren Local Board of Education meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in the administration building.

For five years, the district used grant funding to pay to have a deputy serve as a resource officer at the high school. That funding is no longer available, and the district cannot afford to provide it, board President Bob Allen said.

Giving the deputies an office with 24-hour access will only cost the board the price of making 25 keys. The arrangement would be beneficial to both parties, Chief Deputy Mark Warden said.

“Officers out in that zone, instead of driving back into Marietta, can go there and do reports,” he said.

The deputies would not have a set schedule to be at the school, so their presence couldn’t be predicted.

“If it’s known in the community and the area that we do have a deputy in the building, then that’s a deterrent” to violence and other potential problems, Allen said.

Warren Superintendent Tom Gibbs noted a couple of deputies can often be seen at Little Hocking Elementary because they have children there, while Warren Elementary is closer to the sheriff’s headquarters in Marietta. But the district is also looking at how to increase law enforcement presence at those schools as well and taking other steps, including installing camera and card ID systems at a total estimated cost of $60,000.

The addition of card ID readers to existing camera systems at most buildings is being planned as well in the Fort Frye Local district, where Gibbs is also superintendent. He plans to talk to authorities about providing more of a presence at that district’s schools, he said.

Fort Frye High School Principal Susan Rauch said a deputy met with her about driving by on patrol and walking through the building more often. She noted the school also has an excellent working relationship with the Beverly Police Department.

“Anytime we need anything, all I have to do is pick up the phone and call,” Rauch said.

Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks said he plans to have deputies be more visible around area schools, which could be “part of the solution” in improving safety. Warden said he believes the office at Warren will not be a unique situation in the county.

Wolf Creek Local Schools administrators have invited deputies to visit Waterford Elementary and High schools anytime they’re in the area.

“We want any and all deputies to become familiar with our buildings” in case of a crisis situation, Superintendent Bob Caldwell said.

In addition, he said he hopes students and staff become familiar with the deputies.

“I think some people view the deputies as only being there when they’re doing something wrong,” Caldwell said.

That was a benefit of having deputies at Warren in the past, Leffingwell said. Students would often chat with them, and the deputies headed off some problems before they started, he said.

“There were absolutely no negatives to that relationship,” Leffingwell said.

Deputies were already stopping by Frontier High and Middle School more often due to concerns over bullying in the spring of 2012. Now, Frontier Local Superintendent Bruce Kidder said, the district is working to provide deputies with access to the security camera systems at the high school and Newport and New Matamoras elementaries from their laptops.

“We’re just getting that off the ground,” he said, noting Lawrence Elementary does not have cameras.

The district has also looked at buzz-through door systems for its buildings, but Kidder noted that system was in place at Sandy Hook.

“You’ve almost got to have bars on every window to keep people out,” he said.

The district is weighing the effectiveness of various options.

The Belpre City school district has invited Belpre Police to visit the schools more often. To make that easier, the district provided keys to all of its buildings for each officer.

Superintendent Tony Dunn said that had been discussed prior to the Sandy Hook massacre, but the circumstances of that shooting were so different from previous incidents – even the one that occurred Jan. 10 in California, when one student shot and wounded another with bullying believed to be at the root of it – that schools were faced with “a whole new reality.”

“It changed things,” he said. “There was not that school connection there that the shooter had.”

Initial reports indicated the shooter did have ties to Sandy Hook, but that turned out not to be the case.

For more than a year, Dunn has had conversations with Belpre Mayor Mike Lorentz about ways to pay for a resource officer at the school.

“We’re just looking for funding to do that now,” he said. “We would welcome them.”

The Marietta City school district has a resource officer, Marietta Police Officer Pat Gragan, who spends his time primarily at the middle and high schools and does the D.A.R.E. program in the elementary schools. That position is funded through a state Drug-Use Prevention Program grant.

Marietta officials and residents have also been discussing increased security measures in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook killings.