Legislation would fund more police in schools
Crystal Garcia and Holly Setter
At least once a day, a Port Huron Police officer walks the halls at all of the public schools within the city.
The walk is typically a quiet one, consisting of checking to make sure doors are locked and stopping to chat with office staff.
Officer Don Ochadleus said, once in a while officers are there at the right time and can help break up a scuffle between students or defuse a problem. Should someone enter the school ready to do harm, the officers are familiar with the school and close by, he added.
U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, is working on legislation that could beef up local efforts while opening opportunities to other districts.
Miller is supporting the Protect America’s Schools Act of 2013, which would bring back the Cops in Schools grant program and fund it with about $30 million annually.
The Cops in Schools grant program received more than $753 million from 1998 to 2005 to help 3,000 law enforcement agencies hire more than 6,500 school resource officers. The program ended because of a lack of funding.
“Obviously what happened at Newtown has really put a call to action for all of us to do whatever we can possibly do to prevent that senseless violence in the future,” Miller said.
Port Huron’s Department of Public Safety already had taken school safety a step further by installing mini-stations — with a computer and phone so officers can do some of their paperwork on site — at both Port Huron High and Port Huron Northern.
Port Huron Detective Keith Merrit said the mini-stations were in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six educators were gunned down. It was, he said, a budget-conscious way to have a presence in the school without permanently assigning officers.
At the county level, St. Clair County Sheriff Tim Donnellon said he is a part of a small work group of community stakeholders looking at school safety policy. The members are just starting to gather their own data before meeting to discuss what kind of countywide recommendations could be made to streamline school safety.
Miller stressed the program would not involve new spending, but reallocating funds from other programs — such as unspent funds from administrative accounts and other federal agencies — which is one of the reasons the bill appealed to her.
While she admitted programs losing funding would argue they are a priority, “I can’t think what would be a priority more than the safety of children.”
Michael Reaves, Port Huron’s director of public safety, said the bill is a start.
He said he likes the program because it doesn’t add to the federal deficit and will expand the relationship between officers and the community.
“I would love to have one or two officers dedicated to the high schools with visits to the other schools on a regular basis,” Reaves said.
“The officer would be there every day, and he knows who belongs and who doesn’t belong.”
With the cost of one Port Huron officer at about $70,000, he wasn’t sure how thinly the $30 million would spread.
“But, I like her thinking, and we’ve got to start from there,” he said.
Donnellon said he’d love to participate in the program if it becomes available.
“In light of the changing times we live in, I think it’s a great thing for our students, our children,” he said. “(Since the Newtown shooting), school safety has been at the forefront of our minds. As a parent with kids in three different schools — high school, junior high and elementary— it is a concern.”
Right now, Anchor Bay Schools is the only district to partner with the sheriff’s department for a school resources officer, Donnellon said.
Both H. Ronald Wollen and Mike Sharrow remember the Cops in Schools program.
“The quality of the program depends on the quality of the officer placed in the school,” said Sharrow, Algonac superintendent. “It’s a unique fit. They become part-educator, whether they understand it or not.”
Sharrow said having an officer in the school can help with truancy issues, too.
He said he likes this plan better than an alternative plan of arming educators.
Wollen, Port Huron Area School District superintendent, also liked this plan better than arming educators because the officers are trained professionals.
He agreed with Reaves that having an officer in the school helps build a better relationship between the community and police.
“It was really very positive,” Wollen said about the program in the past. “… Everybody was disappointed that it couldn’t continue.”