By Gari Voss
City of Allegan Police Chief Jay Gibson has had a dream that School Resource Officers (SROs) would again be assigned to the Allegan Public Schools to assist teachers and school staff in creating a safer and welcoming environment that can facilitate learning for all students. During initial conversations between Chief Gibson and Allegan Superintendent James Antoine, the concept brought nods, but came to a halt when finances came into play.
Chief Gibson went back to the drawing board. “About ten years ago, there was an SRO in Allegan Public who was under the auspice of the Allegan County Sheriff Office, but due to finances and changes in who would be responsible for the program, the SRO was dropped. About 15 years ago, the Allegan County School District (now AAESA) employed an SRO that the City Police took over for a few years but was eliminated when officer numbers went from 11 to 9 due to financial struggles in 2009.”
Gibson continued, “Before moving to Central Office, Superintendent Antoine was in the high school and experienced the value of an SRO. Former Police Chief Rick Hoyer and former Superintendent Kevin Harness had discussions regarding bringing back the program. Supt. Antoine and I have continued the conversation. We feel it is time.”
During County and State Safe Schools meetings, the concerns regarding the increase in behavioral issues during COVID-19 became a focal point of discussion. Those in attendance were able to share observations and ways of addressing the problems as students returned to the classroom.
Gibson believes that to have an effective SRO program, two highly trained officers should be available. These men and women are not assigned to schools to patrol the halls in order to catch students doing something wrong. Though their duties include promoting safety, most of their time is spent interacting with students to teach law-related topics such as bullying, gang violence, driving safety, underage drinking, illegal substances, etc. These interactions build trust between students and law enforcement individuals.
“The State has the TEAM (Teaching, Educating and Mentoring) School Liaison Program, a proactive effort to make schools and communities safer, and to promote responsible citizenship and positive character traits among students in grades K-12. There are 30+ lesson plans that the SROs will be trained to use. In addition, SROs will gain insight into student psychology, classroom management, bullying and harassment and establishing safe parameters,” explained Gibson.
Another dimension of the SROs is as an informal advisor. Officers must be aware of school rules and policies plus student academic strengths and personal goals. By reinforcing positive behaviors, officers can begin conversations with students that will connect each student to the appropriate services required for success.
In addition, an SRO can assist a school and district in developing and implementing comprehensive safety plans. In this capacity, the SRO becomes an emergency manager of sorts. Not every emergency involves an active shooter. Most are related to personal problems or events away from school, but these can affect the school community.
As an SRO program develops, it builds a network of support with other agencies and organizations that can be extremely beneficial for the school community. The network for Allegan Public Schools can include the current Social Work and Counseling staffs plus Community Mental Health’s new Mobile Response Unit and other county support groups.
Chief Gibson understands the importance of collaboration in building the SRO program. Rather than expect the school system or city to budget the full amount for an SRO team for 5 years, Gibson began conversations to do cost sharing. This took him to the townships that send students to the Allegan Schools.
“Allegan Public will provide 50% of the funds while the City of Allegan Police Department will contribute 20%. Allegan Township graciously picked up another 20%. The final 10% is being shared by Cheshire, Trowbridge and Valley Townships,” Chief Gibson explained. “I am grateful that all of the stakeholders saw the added value for SRO services.”
The SRO Program is on schedule to begin in August 2022. The commitment is for 5 years with the intent to continue forward. The five year commitment establishes the program, which will help as the new elementary school is built.
Superintendent Antoine holds high praise for Chief Gibson, “We all value the safety of the students in our schools, and it is a number 1 priority. I am thankful to everyone, the city and townships, who have pitched in. I am especially thankful to Jay who has spearheaded the collaboration with the different entities to solidify the financial commitment.”
Looking forward, Antoine interjected, “I was an assistant principal in the high school when we had a liaison officer, and I truly understand the value of this person. We have safety and response plans in place. The SRO can operate beyond these basic plans to better meet student and staff needs.”
Townships and the City of Allegan are currently finalizing budgets for the next funding year. At the March 28, 2022 Council, Chief Gibson was given approve to finalize the paperwork with stakeholders. These are the final steps in starting the hiring and training of SROs and bringing the dream to reality.