School administrators across Hendricks County are watching and waiting to see what will happen with proposed legislation that will help fund more school resource officers.
State Sen. Pete Miller of Avon filed the measure that would set aside $10 million in state funding for school corporations to hire trained law enforcement officers. Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller and Miller began working on the bill some time ago. The Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were killed, has recently increased public concern about student safety.
The bill would set aside $10 million for the Indiana Safe School Fund and allow public schools to apply for matching grants to hire officers to work in schools. The amount of state dollars from the fund would be capped at $50,000 for each school corporation.
Schools in Hendricks County vary on how much of a police presence they have. They range from having no paid officers on staff to those with multiple full-time school resource officers.
Richard “Rusty” King, superintendent of the North West Hendricks Community School Corporation, said his schools rely on help from the local police departments.
“We don’t have anybody actually employed by the school corporation,” King said. “But our local police are very supportive. We have officers, especially from Pittsboro, come in and talk to our kids and make their presence known.”
He said the police departments in the northwest corner of the county are very small.
“The town marshal at North Salem tries to come in when possible,” King said. “And the officer from Lizton is part-time. However, the county sheriff’s department has been very good and will come into the middle and high school for events, when they can.”
He said if there were funds available through this legislation, the corporation would be very interested in applying.
“We probably would apply for it and would look to our police forces to help us through any hiring process,” he said. “We would want to find someone qualified.”
The Mill Creek Community School Corporation has a part-time school resource officer through the Plainfield Police Department.
“Chris Duffer is a Plainfield Police officer and works full time for the department,” said Patrick Spray, Mill Creek superintendent. “He has been our resource officer for about eight years.”
Spray said Duffer helps coordinate security for school events and any kind of “non emergency” support the schools may have.
“We really appreciate the area law enforcement officers,” he said. “Any money that could funnel into school safety would be positive. I’m sure we would interested in exploring what this bill could do for us.”
Bruce Felix has been the school resource officer for the Plainfield Community School Corporation for five years and a reserve officer with the Plainfield Police Department for 15 years.
“I start my day at the middle school because they’re the first ones to come in,” he said.
Felix’s office is inside Plainfield High School but his daily duties take him to each building in the corporation. He rotates throughout the week where he will spend time during the lunch hour. He starts out at PHS and then heads out to the lower grade level buildings each day.
Felix has a radio that keeps him connected with the school corporation and a police radio so he can hear of anything going on near any of the district’s buildings.
“When I’m in my car, I’m also connected with our buses,” he said. “So if I need to, I can call them when they need to take a different route.”
Felix carries a variety of weapons on his person at all times. On his belt, he has a collapsible baton, pepper spray, a taser, and a fire arm. Law enforcement officers are the only individuals who may carry a fire arm on school property.
Scott Olinger, superintendent of the PCSC, said he meets with Felix regularly.
“He covers all six of our buildings,” Olinger said. “School security is so important. If the state could come through with more funds for security, it would be much appreciated and utilized.”
Olinger is hosting a district-wide round table to discuss security from 6 to 7 p.m. Jan. 16 at Plainfield High School. The discussion was spurred by the tragic events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Parents and educators are invited to take part in the discussion.
“There’s no set agenda,” Olinger said. “It’s our duty to be diligent and parents really do have a lot of good ideas. There are a lot of different views out there.”
The Brownsburg Community School Corporation has its own full-time police force that assigns officers to each level of the school system. The idea is for officers to forge bonds with students so problems can be snuffed out before they reach a cataclysmic level.
“We have three full-time officers that have been through the police academy,” explained BCSC Communications Coordinator Donna Petraits. “Their responsibility is certainly to protect and defend in the event that they would need to, our students and staff, but they play a very important role in developing relationships with students.”
Petraits said it’s often possible to vet out major problems before they happen, so the police force works in earnest to get to know the students so they feel comfortable coming to report to them.
“They establish programs, they have helped bring in a watchdog crime tips line, they’ve been helpful in establishing an anti-theft program at the high school and in doing some games, training, and teaching with kids at the elementary school level to help them understand bullying,” she said. “Our police officers are more proactive than reactive.”
Petraits said the corporation wanted to hire another full-time officer, but cutbacks forced them to wait.
Still, she’s concerned about the proposed legislation.
“You have to look at where the money is coming from,” she said. “Are they taking it from other essential needs and programs and just displacing them, and what happens when those dollars run out? If it’s planned for two years, the school district has to come up with the plan to keep that going, as cash strapped as school districts are with all the cuts that have been made. I think anything that the state can do to lighten up on that and help districts that don’t have the option would be great. Does it give people peace of mind? Absolutely.”
The Avon Community School Corporation employs two off-duty police officers from Avon and Plainfield. They’re on tiered schedules so that the whole school day is covered. They’re housed at the high school but patrol all of the schools in the corporation. They’re partially funded by a state Safe Haven Grant, with the rest coming from ACSC’s operating fund.
“We feel it’s important to hire police officers because they’re specifically trained to respond to emergency incidences,” said Brock Bowsher, Avon’s director of finance and operations.
He said he considers Miller’s legislation to be a good idea.
“Any time the state provides potential resources for school safety is always a positive,” Bowsher said. “The way the current bill looks, I think that’s something Avon schools would definitely be interested in pursuing.”
Danville Community School Corporation Superintendent Denis Ward said he didn’t know if the corporation would even apply for the state money, assuming the bill is passed.
“It’s hard to respond to that simply because you never know until the bill is passed, what all the strings are that are attached to that,” he said. “We currently have a full-time resource officer for our school district that we share with the Danville Police Department, as far as the expenses for that position. It’s a collaboration between the Danville Police Department and the school corporation.”
He said Danville has taken other proactive steps to keep students safe.
DCSC Assistant Superintendent Tom Johnson added, “There’s a safety committee we’ve established and we’re going to be meeting on Jan. 22. We’ll have local police, county police, and EMA ... it’s a pretty large group ... (we’ll be meeting) to discuss strategy.”
Ward said he formation of the committee isn’t a reaction to anything that has happened.
“Periodically, we will put together a group to review all of our operational procedures in regard to safety,” he said. “This is just another attempt to make sure we’re as current, and have the most secure environment as we can within the obvious limitations financially. That’s a normal process. It isn’t in reaction to anything, it’s just something that we normally do, and it’s up on the rotation.”
As far as Miller’s proposed legislation, he said they would continue to monitor it.
“The concept is wonderful, I think it’s all with the safety of kids and employees at its base, that’s a wonderful thing,” Ward said. “But ... the economic times being what they are, I’m not sure it’s prudent to do that right now.”.