Column: A Resource Officer Would Improve Safety at Bradford Schools
Extreme frustration was understandably evident at the Nov. 14 public forum in Bradford, convened after Oxbow coach Brian Musty was charged with aggravated sexual assault of a student — allegations made five years after a different educator in the Orange East Supervisory Union was accused, and later convicted, of violating a student. Concerned community members received little assurance this month that changes could be made in policies and procedures to prevent a recurrence and protect students.
The Bradford Police Commission believes that placing a full-time police officer as a school resource officer (SRO) in Bradford schools could substantially improve safety in our schools.
Communities throughout the nation have recognized that assigning trained law enforcement officers to schools can make a difference. A school resource officer can serve in a variety of roles, including law enforcement officer, law-related educator, problem-solver and community liaison. Some SROs have taught classes in crime prevention, substance abuse awareness and gang resistance.
SROs monitor and assist troubled students through mentoring programs and promote personal and social responsibility by encouraging participation in community service activities. SROs cultivate and build upon respect and understanding between law enforcement and school communities. These officers also identify physical changes in schools that could reduce crime in and around schools and help develop policies that address criminal activity and school safety.
The recommendation to establish a school resource officer was actually a cornerstone recommendation in 2006 of a Public Safety Study Group, formed after the merger of the village and town of Bradford. Its recommendations included the formal establishment of a police department, hiring a full-time chief of police and forming a police commission to serve as an advocate for public safety and as a forum for citizens. The Selectboard appointed the original five members of the study group to serve on the Police Commission. Three of those members still serve and collectively have in excess of 100 years of law enforcement experience at the local, state and federal level.
Oxbow High School and the Bradford Elementary School were two institutions identified by the study group as facilities of concern relative to public safety. Since as many as 900 administrators, teachers and students gather in those two schools daily, additional police services are needed to protect safety and provide students the best educational experience. The study group noted that administrators and school staff have already expended substantial resources toward maintaining safety and security at the facilities, and have also developed a good working relationship with the Bradford police. However, the study group found that additional police resources were needed at both schools.
The study group endorsed establishing an SRO position at Oxbow High and River Bend Career and Technical Center and noted that such an officer could also assist the elementary school by re-establishing the DARE drug education program, which was last provided during the early 1990s.
With the preliminary support of the Selectboard, several members of the Study Group met with the Oxbow School Board in early 2006. Study group member Ed Garone furnished a detailed explanation of his experiences with the SRO program when he was police chief in Derry, N.H., which has two SROs assigned to three schools. Garone, who served as police chief for 34 years, including seven involving the use of an SRO, described the SRO program as the “single most effective law enforcement tool available to his department.” He recalled positive relationships between the SROs, the administrators and teachers, as well as the students.
The Oxbow board endorsed the program, envisioning starting the program with a federal grant and eventually having the school board fund the position for the nine-month school term. The SRO’s salary during summer months would become the responsibility of the town, where the officer would be assigned when school was out. Towns that sent students to Oxbow and River Bend would contribute to program funding.
Money for the federal grants that the Oxbow board was counting on to start the program dried up and is unlikely to be restored. The Police Commission believes the lack of government grants should not stop the greater Bradford community from establishing an SRO position at Oxbow/River Bend. The community at large is at a critical stage for ensuring that adequate safety measures are in place throughout the town. Our new police chief, Jeff Steigler, has outstanding credentials and the experience to manage and develop the department. Steigler fully supports establishing an SRO position and is quite familiar with the effectiveness of the work, as his wife currently serves as SRO for the high school in Gilford, N.H.
The Study Group Report observed that communities too often fail to allocate sufficient resources for law enforcement until after a critical situation occurs. Crime prevention is a fundamental principle in police work; it can save communities immeasurably compared with the costs of crime and incarceration. A community with a strong police presence can achieve numerous benefits, some of which may not be readily apparent. The report also noted that Bradford had operated well below the averages for police staffing for an extended period, and prevention efforts had suffered as a result.
The quality of life in a community is directly related to the perception its citizens have regarding public safety. Unfortunately, several residents commented at the recent forum that they no longer feel safe living in Bradford.
Their confidence can be restored over time if adequate measures are taken. The establishment of a full-time SRO position will enhance the safety and security of Bradford schools. The daily presence of a trained officer who reports directly to the chief of police will help ensure that instances of wrongdoing are detected and reported promptly.
Gary Moore, Edward Garone, John Hersh and Robert Nordham are members of the Bradford Police Commission.