By Sue Loughlin
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — As Matt Price stood in the North Central Junior/Senior High School hallway during a passing period, he asked students how they were doing or extended his hand for a fist bump.
“Don’t leave me hanging,” the school district’s new police chief joked with some students if they tried to walk by without returning his greeting.
“Good day so far?” he asked another student. Some students smiled, a few wore more somber expressions.
Northeast Sullivan School Corp. has established its own police department this year with a goal of keeping students and staff safe.
But the role of the school resource officer is much more than that, Price said. It includes informal counseling and education on topics that might include drug use prevention or safe driving.
“We want to have that positive interaction with them and show them, we’re not just law enforcement. We’re here for you. We can help you. We can teach you,” said Price, who also is the Shelburn town marshal.
This year, the district has a school resource officer in each building — at the high school and elementary schools in Farmersburg and Hymera.
According to Northeast Superintendent Mark Baker, “We decided to establish our own department so we did not have to contract with a separate company. This gives us control on who we hire and have the same people each day.”
Baker added that “it is unfortunate in these times that we need to have police presence in our schools, but safety is our priority for students and staff.”
Other districts in the Wabash Valley that now have school police departments are Southwest Sullivan School Corp. and Clay Community Schools.
Increasingly, many Indiana school districts are establishing their own, district-based police departments that employ school resource officers.
Chase Lyday, executive director of the Indiana School Resource Officers Association, said it is a growing trend, and more than 40 Indiana school districts now have their own departments.
The reason, he said, “is because schools have a desire to have a consistent resource officer in their buildings, rather than having to schedule off-duty officers every day,” he said.
Among the challenges with scheduling off-duty officers is that “you don’t have the same officer in the school all the time,” said Lyday, who also is a school board member for the Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township in Indianapolis.
Off duty officers do provide school security, “but the primary goal of a school resource officer is to have healthy relationships with kids to make them feel safe. We’ve learned safety is much better done in the context of relationships than just with a badge in a school each day,” Lyday said.
Another challenge relates to law enforcement staffing shortages, which can make it difficult to get school schedules filled.
Police and sheriff’s departments have no obligation to provide officers to schools “or even allow officers to work off duty in schools when there is such a shortage on the road and … just to fill the shifts,” Lyday said.
Providing that staffing for schools is becoming increasingly difficult in different parts of the state, he said.
The trend toward school district police departments “is absolutely positive,” Lyday said.
Many local law enforcement agencies also support it because they no longer have to respond to more minor incidents in schools and it bolsters their ability to respond to community situations “that are more of a priority for them,” Lyday said.
Schools fund the departments through their operations funds as well as Secured School Safety grants from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, Lyday said.
Some schools secure funding through a referendum.
Southwest Sullivan police department in place since 2020
Southwest Sullivan School Corp. established its own police department in December 2019, with Jim Dotson as its police chief. He is retired from the Indiana State Police.
The goal was to provide increased safety and security, but the role of the district’s school resource officers goes far beyond that, Dotson agreed.
“We’re not put in this position to make arrests,” Dotson said. “Our purpose is to make relationships and make students feel more comfortable around law enforcement officers. That is our goal and to be mentors to these students.”
Today, the department consists of Dotson and three additional school resource officers who staff Sullivan High School, middle school, elementary and Carlisle elementary/middle school each day.
They lost a fifth officer to another school district department but hope to again hire a replacement.
“It’s worked marvelously,” Dotson said. “A lot of people think we’re just a security agency. We’re not. We are an actual law enforcement agency” recognized by the Indiana Law Enforcement training board and the FBI.
While the intent is to build relationships and serve as mentors, “We are fully fledged sworn police officers in the state of Indiana. We are not security guards and we are armed,” Dotson said.
The police department has been funded for each of the last three years through a $100,000 Indiana Secured School Safety grant, which is matched by the school district.
The district previously contracted with Lawman Security Consulting out of Evansville, and prior to being police chief, Dotson worked part-time as an SRO in Southwest Sullivan schools for several years.
“You got to know the students. You got to see them grow. You got to see them mature,” he said.
Dotson noted that a major part of the job is dealing with mental health issues, and SROs work closely with school counselors.
Last year, Clay Community Schools decided to establish its own department. Josh Clarke, former chief deputy with the Clay County Sheriff’s Department, is its police chief.
The district’s police department now has five full-time police officers, with a long-term goal of 11. It also has about six part-time officers hired contractually through LawMan.
This is the first full school year for the department. “We’ve had a great response from the kids and the community and we’re continuing to grow,” Clarke said.
Vigo County School Corp. security
The Vigo County School Corp. has school protection officers in each school. Some SPOs are full-time, others part-time; some are off-duty police, while others are special deputies through the Vigo County Sheriff’s Office.
Last fall, the school district had 13,400 students. On any given day, the district has 38 officers working in 29 facilities.
VCSC has looked into the possibility of having its own police department, but “it wasn’t cost effective for a school corporation of our size,” said Katie Shane, VCSC interim director of communications.
Kurt Brinegar is the VCSC coordinator of safety and security.
He is in charge of all SPOs, scheduling and training. He reviews all emergency plans for each school/building and handles any security-related issues throughout the corporation. He also serves as the liaison between VCSC and law enforcement.
“Each SPO is tasked with the protection of the students, staff and property. That is their sole duty,” Brinegar said.
But SPOs also have the opportunity to develop relationships with students and staff and serve as a positive role model for students.
The district funds the SPOs through part of an operating referendum passed in 2019.
School district police departments do face some challenges.
Dotson, whose department lost an officer to another district, said school districts “are becoming very competitive with each other” in recruitment of officers.
Nationwide, law enforcement is experiencing increased challenges in recruiting new candidates.
Also, according to Lyday, retirement benefits for school district police officers and that of municipal and sheriff’s deputies are not compatible. That becomes a challenge in the hiring pool for school-based police departments, Lyday said.
Also, for off-duty police, the policies and procedures they must adhere to through their departments may at times be in conflict with a school district’s policies/procedures, he said.
Overall, from Clarke’s perspective, his experiences as the new Clay Community Schools police chief “are absolutely amazing. This is why I became a police officer is for these types of relationships and to help the community. Coming into this position has reminded me why I was a police officer.”
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