DELMAR — When the Town of Bethlehem submitted its police reform plan to the state, one of several details included the intent to define a clear role for the resource officers it provides to area schools. Bethlehem Central, however, still has questions about that assignment.
When then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered municipalities in 2020 to devise plans to revise law enforcement, the onus was placed on local government. Bethlehem soon after started evaluating the nearly 40-year relationship it had by providing school resource officers to Bethlehem Central through its Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative. The committee of town officials and community members argued over the need to have armed police officers in schools. They ultimately described the decades-long D.A.R.E. program as ineffective; pointing to personal experiences, national headlines and case studies.
“I encourage you all to read the Police Reform report, said Katie Yezzi, an educator and member of the town committee who spoke to the board following an SRO presentation facilitated by the Bethlehem Police Department. “Regrettably, none of our committee’s recommendations appeared to have had an impact on the presentation this evening. I believe that moving forward, the district has a responsibility to at least respond to, if not implement, the recommendations from our committee around SROs.”
Superintendent Jody Monroe explained that she and high school principals David Dormel and Michael Klugman spoke with Town Supervisor David VanLuven, but the district was not an active participant in the town committee.
“When this came up I asked, what’s the concern?” Monroe said. “Because in the time that I have been in the district, I’ve not had any concerns brought to me… about the SROs.”
Willow Baer said she called for the presentation on Wednesday, Nov. 3. The school board member said she observed the discussions happening on the town level, but not with the school board.
“It wasn’t directed to the school board, because that wasn’t the committee that was doing the work” Baer said. “So, I felt that it was incredibly important that we provide the community the opportunity to to address the appropriate body about their same concerns, and to have an internal discussion here, about whether or not the recommendations of that committee is something we want to explore further as the body responsible for the SRO program and DARE program in the school district.”
Drug Abuse Resistance Education — known best as D.A.R.E. — started between the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1983 as a means of introducing a friendly face to law enforcement for elementary school children. Police officers would join classrooms to speak about specific drugs, their effects and the dangers associated with taking them, including addiction. Over the 30 years since its launch, the curriculum has evolved beyond crime prevention and has developed into a counseling role.
The benefits of having SROs on campus have been weighed against drawbacks defined by fear of racially biased law enforcement. Supporters of the program point to a decline in nationwide drug abuse starting in the 1980s. Detractors, however, drill down to a 2009 analysis reported in Scientific American magazine that states the program doesn’t work.
School districts across the country have opted to remove police officers from their campuses since the death of George Floyd last May. According to a recent New York Times article, a superintendent in Seattle said having an armed police officer at school “prohibits many students and staff from feeling fully safe.”
“Since I’ve been here – in 20 years and 8 years on the school board – there’s never been a complaint that’s come from a parent on any action that an SRO has done inappropriately in the district,” said Christine Beck. “I love the examples in the national report, but they have to be applicable to our school. And they’re not.”
Jonathan Fishbein said he wasn’t surprised to hear harsh comments against the DARE program. While his now-grown children attended Hamagrael Elementary School, the school board member recalled it did little to detract kids from using drugs.
“I never thought the DARE program was effective,” he said. “I haven’t seen the studies that show it is effective. … I’d like to see a program that is effective.”
Bethlehem Police Department Det. Michael Berben said he wouldn’t advocate for or against the program, but explained how he viewed his role as an SRO for Bethlehem Central was “very valuable.”
“The reason why I believe that my presence here is important, is the exchange of information that I bring from the community, to the administrators, to the social workers, the councillors, the teachers,” he said. “To be able to have the communication that works in the best interest of making the students here feel comfortable and safe in their school and in their home.”
Darnell Douglas, a school district counselor, later described a situation where Berben helped a student in crisis.
Without sharing too much information to reveal the student, Douglas said that a child outside of school wrote on an online chat service that they were going to kill themselves. The next morning, Berben shared the information with Douglas. They then spent the next two hours trying to track the child down.
Once they did, the reached out to the parents. The family was unaware, and at first, dismissed the call. Douglas and Berben went through their information again and returned back with confidence. The parents didn’t realize their child was in crisis. Berben then visited the home to evaluate the student.
“So, when I say we have a relationship, that’s really what it’s about,” Douglas said. “Because I know Mike Berben, he’s able to give me information so that I can do my job more effectively as a school counselor. Because if I didn’t have that information, there’s a possibility that I could have gone days without me connecting with that student, and that student possibly could have died.”
After listening to approximately six attendees from the audience, the school board said it would review suggestions from the Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative.