By Claudia Hoffacker
When the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, the whole nation was shocked. Bob Malz could not get that tragedy out of his mind.
Malz is the chief of police for the City of Jordan (population 5,700), and when he heard about Sandy Hook, he knew he needed to make some changes in his own community.
“You feel helpless when these things happen,” Malz says.
“And you realize it could happen here. Doing nothing was not an option. We were in a reactionary mode and we needed to do something that was proactive.”
As usual when a school shooting happens, Malz called a meeting with the school superintendent and principals to discuss it and brainstorm ideas about how to prevent anything like that from ever happening in Jordan schools.
‘So simple, it’s brilliant’
While thinking and talking about the Sandy Hook tragedy with school officials, an idea occurred to the chief: let’s put police satellite offices in each school building right by the front door. When he proposed this idea at the meeting with school leaders, Malz says, “I saw a little stunned silence for a minute. Then everyone thought about it and said, ‘Yes, this is pretty cool. We should try this.’ And the middle school principal (Lance Chambers) said, ‘This is so simple, it’s brilliant. Why haven’t we thought of this before?’”
So, with the buy-in from school leaders in hand, Malz then took the idea to the Jordan School Board and City Council, and both gave their full approval and support.
With a budget of $20,000, offices were modified and computers purchased to accommodate the police officers at the schools.
They moved into their new offices in March 2013, just three months after the change was approved.
Now when you walk into the Jordan High School, Jordan Middle School, or Jordan Elementary School, the first thing you see is a big window into an office with a police officer sitting at the desk—and that police officer sees you. In addition, there is a police office at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Jordan, and four officers occupy that school on a rotating basis. Officials also established a single point of entry at each school so they can be sure to see everyone who comes in.
Technology is key to the program’s success, Malz says. All the officers have laptops with remote access to the networks and programs they need. In addition, they have monitors displaying live views of multiple areas of the schools as well as the Police Department downtown.
If Malz needs to have a face-to-face chat with one of his officers, he can call him up on the computer screen, like you would with Skype. So, it’s almost just like the old days when they were all together at the Police Department.
For further protection, the Police Department and school worked together to create a Threat Assessment Team and Policy.
The team includes the school superintendent, police chief, school principal, teacher or school dean, school counselor, someone from the county attorney’s office, and a mental health professional. If there were any kind of threat to the safety of the school, the team would work together to quickly determine the level of threat and what actions should be taken.
“We haven’t had to use it, but we’re ready to go if something ever happens,” Malz says.
Once they decided to go forward with the new initiative, the schools communicated the change to parents. For the most part, the parents were all for it. In fact, Malz says that many have stopped by his school office to say they’re glad he’s there.
There was a little more reluctance at the Catholic elementary school—a vocal minority, says Principal Bonita Jungels. Some were against having the police come into the schools because they carry guns while others just felt it was an extreme measure that wasn’t needed.
So the school held a parent meeting where Malz discussed the proposal, and parents had a chance to voice their concerns. After the meeting, the School Advisory Council decided to move forward with the initiative, and since the police have been present, there have been no complaints, Jungels says.
“It’s been a really positive experience,” she says. “The kids always come by and talk to the officer, and it’s a great thing for the students to develop those relationships and see the police as their friends.”
Comfort to school staff and students
School officials in Jordan say it’s a comfort to have the police in their buildings each day. “I feel so much better knowing that we have that additional safety measure in place,” says Jordan Superintendent Matthew Helgerson.
Helgerson, who joined the Jordan School District this year, had a scare in a different district last year that gives him even more appreciation for the onsite police protection he has now.
“We had a serious scare and a lockdown situation where I had a walkie-talkie in one hand and a cell phone in the other trying to determine the level of threat and whether it was a credible threat. I was going through that procedure on my own. Now, I would have somebody to talk through that; it’s just a higher level of security and confidence,” he says.
But even if, as they hope, they never have any kind of serious safety threat in Jordan, it’s still great to have the police officers around just to collaborate on “day-to-day issues,” the superintendent adds. “We can work together to solve community problems and to build positive relationships between students and adult members of the community with our police force. Forming positive relationships with the police is really the best deterrent.”
Elementary Principal Melissa Barnett agrees that there are a lot of benefits to having the police around besides just safety. For example, you might have a custody issue that the police officer will share with the principal.
“We would normally find out things like that eventually, but it would take a lot longer,” Barnett says. “Now, if I need any information like that, I go to our officers first because they have a lot better access to county officials and they know how all the procedures work. I can get the information a lot faster.”
Sgt. Brett Empey, who has an office at Jordan Elementary, says he was happy to help out when Barnett asked him to stick around for parent-teacher conferences. “Sometimes we have divorced parents who aren’t on the best terms, and the police presence helps to calm those situations,” Barnett says.
“It’s just another person they see that they’re going to be held accountable to.”
The officers can also help set students straight when needed. Principal Chambers had a situation at the middle school recently where a student took something from a teacher’s desk, lied about it, and got caught in the lie. It was a minor incident, but of course, Chambers had to let the parents know about it.
The student’s father asked Chambers: “Can you have the police officer talk to her?”
The father told Chambers, “She needs to know how important this is, and I want her to be scared so she won’t do this again.” So one of the officers did have a friendly chat with the girl. “They’re not really here for those kinds of things,” Chambers says, “but if they have the time, it’s a good way to educate kids about what can happen if you continue to do things like this.”
Another bonus, Malz says, is that “juvenile crime has gone way down” in the last year since this program started. “I believe that the increased positive contact with police has played a significant role in this,” Malz stated in his annual report to the City Council.
And one more great benefit they didn’t think of? “The kids bring me cupcakes on their birthdays,” Empey points out with a grin.
In all seriousness, though, the primary goal of the program is to increase the safety and security of students and staff. Still, you can’t deny all the unanticipated benefits that have resulted, Malz says.
If there’s a problem with a student now, “we sit down and discuss those issues as a team instead of them calling us and turning everything over to us to decide. We’ve made fewer arrests since we started this program,” Malz says. “I’ve been here 14 years, and the relationship between the police and schools has never been better.”
Claudia Hoffacker is web content and publications manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 215-4032.
Read the May-June 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine
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