Teacher, student, cop? Cloquet steps closer to police officer at high school
It’s something students at Cloquet High School are accustomed to seeing: navy-clad police officers standing in the main hallway, observing the school. For some students, the officers have no effect on them. For others, their presence may invoke fear and dread about coming to school. Even more wonder: What are they doing there?
According to Cloquet Police Commander Derek Randall, they do a great deal of things.
“Some of the routine activities include monitoring vehicle and pedestrian traffic in the mornings, lunch periods and after school,” said Randall. “(Also), providing security at the entrances and exits of the building, and interacting with the students and staff during recess hours. [They can also] assist the school counselors with students in crisis and are often called on by teachers to present on a variety of topics in the classroom.”
An officer specifically hired to take on these tasks in a school is a School Resource Officer, or SRO.
“The benefits of having an SRO on campus are diverse,” Randall said. “At any given time, they serve as a pseudo-counselor, a pseudo-educator, a law enforcer, a safety expert, a problem solver and a liaison to the community for the students and staff at the schools.”
When Cloquet previously worked with an SRO, the results proved to be positive.
“Students would often confide in the officer to report crimes, such as controlled substance crimes, gang activities, bullying, and vandalism that was occurring at school or elsewhere in the community,” Randall said.
Now, the Cloquet School Board has approved bringing on an SRO again, by a unanimous vote.
“I think it’s just a necessity that has to happen, with the way things have changed in schools,” Candace Nelis, district finance director, said at the school board meeting Jan. 10 when board member Jim Crowley asked Nelis if the district could afford it.
The goals of the program would be improving campus safety, increasing security for students, parents, and staff, and for police to establish a good relationship with students starting at a young age.
The city would be responsible for hiring, training and supervising the SRO, although the school district will appoint an administrator to be the SRO coordinator, according to the three-year contract approved by the board earlier this month.
According to City Administrator Brian Fritsinger, the city of Cloquet included its portion of the SRO officer costs as part of its 2017 budget. Fritsinger said the Cloquet City Council has not yet held any formal discussion on the creation of the position or the actual agreement with the school district. The topic is currently slated to be on the Feb. 21 council agenda. If approved, the goal would be to have someone in place to fill the position for the 2017-18 school year.
Fritsinger said the city has worked collaboratively with the school district for many years in the area of school resources. In the late 1990s the city obtained a federal grant which — when combined with funding from the school district — allowed a full-time SRO to be placed in the schools.
“Unfortunately as grant funding became unavailable and the state reduced local government aid to cities and schools, the position had to take on additional law enforcement responsibilities outside the schools,” Fritsinger said. “So while we maintained a presence, it was different. With some of our societal challenges now, the opportunity to get an officer back in the schools to develop relationships with students, tear down some of the walls of distrust of police officers that many young people have and improve the safety at our schools is a significant positive step for the community. The city council is very excited to see us be in this position where we can once again have an officer dedicated to this important role.”
The funding for the SRO position would be split, with 70 percent paid by the Cloquet School District and 30 percent the Cloquet Police Department/city of Cloquet. The total for the school district adds up to be around $64,000 a year, which Superintendent Ken Scarbrough called “a fairly good deal” considering the costs of equipment, including a vehicle, and health insurance, vacation, etc.
“I think it’s a reasonable cost,” Scarborough told the board. “[It’s a] comparable amount with a second- or third-year teacher, by the time you pay all the [benefits].”
Supporters say the numerous advantages will outweigh the costs.
“Having an officer on campus will shorten the response time for any calls for service in or around the school(s),” Randall said. “Some schools have seen a decrease in loitering, truancy, and disruption in and outside of the classrooms during the school day.”
When school is out, it doesn’t necessarily mean the officer is done for the day.
“When school is out, the SRO will assist with calls for service and investigations involving juveniles,” Randall said. “The SRO will also provide police services at school-related events, such as sporting events and school dances.”
Many students at the high school agree with the idea.
“Having an officer at school may take some getting used to,” Senior Class President Kate Elwood said, “but in the long run it could be beneficial to the safety of the students and faculty.”
However, other students and may wonder: How will it affect me?
Randall assures them that SROs are not out to get anyone, they’re there simply to keep the school safe.
“A police officer would step in — in a law enforcement capacity — anytime someone's safety is in jeopardy,” Randall said, “or a crime is occurring in his or her presence. Also, our department is working with the schools and the Carlton County Restorative Justice group to use restorative practice models, when applicable.”
In a situation where Restorative Justice is the model, rather than arresting someone and sending them through the criminal justice system, the officers are often one of the stakeholders who help hold the offender accountable for their actions by engaging them with the people they have affected. And they don’t end up with a criminal record that may hamper efforts to get into college, get a job or even find housing after they leave the nest.
“[It provides] a method for them to learn from their actions and provide an opportunity for them to mend their wrongdoings,” Randall said.
Scarbrough sees the addition of a police officer to the high school as a win-win for the school district and the police department.
“Just as important as anything, the SRO is going to be developing good relations with the students and faculty, and that will be very good for law enforcement and our district,” the superintendent said.