DELMAR — The push to reform law enforcement, helped along by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandate that forces the hand of local governments to strike such a plan, had the Town of Bethlehem looking at school resource officers recently.
The sight of an armed police officer at school is not uncommon. It dates back to at least the Reagan administration when then-First Lady Nancy Reagan launched her “Just Say No” program. It was part of a larger war on drugs.
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 a crime prevention role and has developed into a counseling one.
The benefits of having SROs on campus have been weighed against drawbacks defined by fear and racially biased law enforcement. Supporters of the program point to a significant 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.
Since the town’s Police Reform & Reinvention Advisory Committee was formed in October, select community leaders have discussed various topics surrounding law enforcement culture. When discussion turned to SROs, many could not break their focus off of the gun.
Since the death of George Floyd last May, school districts across the country have opted to remove police officers from their campuses. Districts in Minneapolis, Seattle, Oakland, Denver and Portland, Ore., have started taking such steps. 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.”
Bethlehem Police Detective Sgt. Michael Whiteley, an SRO who has been with the department since 2002, said he’s had the opportunity to see the community’s children grow up and graduate. Which is why he takes issue as being viewed simply by his service revolver.
”It saddens me that when you see a police officer, you focus on the weapon. I’m not a man who carries a weapon,” he said. “I’m Mike Whiteley. I’m an SRO. I’m a police officer. And, I’m out there doing my job because I care about keeping people safe.”
There is a visible difference between D.A.R.E. and school resource officers. D.A.R.E. officers are in full uniform while SROs dress in a shirt, tie and dress pants. Both handle guns. Whiteley explained that in his initial classes with children, he helps diffuse attention from his gun by going over the tools on his “Bat Belt,” a reference to DC Comics’ Batman. The gun he has while at school, which he is required to wear under state law, is smaller in order to conceal it from view.
Bethlehem’s D.A.R.E. program is heralded as a success since it paired with Bethlehem Central in 1989. It was one of the first to launch in New York, and it is the longest continuous program in the state. Police Chief Gina Cocchiara headed the SRO program most recently. In the years she was associated with the program, she had received several compliments from school officials.
“I don’t get the gun issue that we’re having,” said Suni Swann. As a teacher, she said she felt more safe knowing an armed officer was on campus to protect them. As a mother and wife of police officers, she added, “If he didn’t have a gun on his side to deal with the evil in this world, we would be even more of a wreck in this family. … Do you ask a doctor to go into surgery without a knife?”
Within the committee’s controlled environment, the level of contention could only be measured by the visibility of body language. The air in the virtual conference room wasn’t lost on the group’s facilitator, Jasmin Brandow, of HumanKind Workshop. “You can feel it,” she said, at one point. Participants respected her “one mic” rule. Where unstructured conversation would have broken down at any point of disagreement, bodies shifted in their seats. Most tempers were curbed by the time a previously angry voice was scheduled to speak.
Cocchiara said she doesn’t see a need to change the relationship dynamics between her department and the school district. After Albany County Assistant Public Defender Gabriella Romero suggested the committee seek ways to eliminate SROs from schools, the town’s police chief said, “that’s an unacceptable request.”
“The school district has never asked to cease having this relationship,” said Cocchiara. “The school board and the superintendent are in complete agreement with me to continue it. So, I think it’s out of scope for this community committee and I don’t know why we’re discussing this.”
Bethlehem Middle School Principal Michael Klugman said he’s aware of the arguments against armed officers at schools. As a pacifist, he said, he’s against guns. Shortly after the Parkland shootings that killed at 17 in 2018, government officials debated over having teachers and principals carry guns to school. He said he’d rather have a police officer instead.
Klugman spoke of less publicized events that define the benefits of SROs on campus. There were two cases within the past four years in which separate students — one at the high school and the other at the middle school — walked into school “willing to do self-harm.” They each entered the school without permission, he said. In both cases, SROs were able to respond quickly and lend help.
“As you might imagine, we often don’t make a public statement about those incidents when they happen in schools,” said Klugman. “I would hope people understand why we also have to maintain the privacy of individuals who are community members… We come to know the mental health issues of the community at a very deep and intense level.”
Katie Yezzi, who has spent the majority of her 27-year educational career committed to social justice, said the police officer’s altruism blinds him from how he is viewed by others.
The former assistant superintendent and founding principal of True North Troy Preparatory Charter Elementary School described a tangible perception between the the sight of an armed enforcement officer on campus, and nationwide news of police violence towards people of color.
“The students freaked out about guns are not the ones who are approaching you because they are freaked out,” said Yezzi. “I know those students exist.”
Yezzi, instead, suggested schools invest in more counselors; an idea she had repeated by another community leader, a recent high school graduate who described today’s approach as “antiquated.”
When Nancy Reagan launched D.A.R.E in the early 80s, she armed children with a catch phrase implied to keep drug dealers away from them, and as a mantra to remind them of addiction dangers. Critics have said it’s too simplistic of an approach, suggesting it’s only a matter of choice, but not recognizing the socio-economic factors that shape the environment in which children most likely to abuse live.
“Directing children from drugs is super important. But, I think it’s an antiquated form of crime prevention,” said Delmar resident Xavier Fitzsimmons Cruz. Cruz, a Bethlehem Central graduate and current University at Albany student, has often presented himself at Town Board meetings and has emerged as one of the area’s more respected social reform activists.
Though Bethlehem Central has increased its number of counselors and social workers — Klugman did not disclose how many — Cruz said the need for more help was made apparent last summer. He pointed to last June after online users posted more than 140 different stories of alleged sexual misconduct in and around the school district.
“Our infrastructure now, as a group, has improved greatly, and will continue to improve,” Cruz said, “but are they combating these things, especially drug abuse, through D.A.R.E.? It doesn’t offer that support system. Students who have used drugs and alcohol, generally don’t have the best home support systems. Which could be partially remedied by a stronger, nurturing system at school — that isn’t D.A.R.E.”