COLONIE – Police officers in both Colonie and Bethlehem say they have one major goal in mind while seeking to protect children of all ages: To keep them safe in their schools, homes and communities by teaching them how to protect themselves from danger.
School Resource Officers (called SROs) from both the Colonie and Bethlehem police departments work in nearly all schools in these areas. The goal is to establish fruitful relationships not only with students, but with faculty and staff as well. They are trained to handle all kinds of problems, including emergency situations such as school shootings. Recognizing that establishing trust is a prerequisite to imparting safety knowledge to children, they take every step possible to ensure that students’ contacts with police are both positive and frequent.
“We start working with kids early,” said Sgt. Anthony Sidoti, training sergeant for the SROs in Colonie.
Police do the same in Bethlehem, where nursery school students have the opportunity to tour the police station, as well as learn about the equipment carried in police cars. SROs often visit kindergartens, chatting with the children, answering their questions, or reading stories to them. By fifth grade, they initiate discussions about the dangers of drugs, which continue in the upper grades. When police in both towns see children wearing bike helmets, they are likely to give them a coupon for free ice cream, courtesy of Stewart’s Shops, which nearly always produces giant smiles and enthusiastic thank yous. They say these are just a few of the steps that engender good will among youngsters.
“We currently have two SROs who provide service to our schools in three main areas: education, counseling, and law enforcement,” said Bethlehem Central School District’s Superintendent Jody Monroe. “They are here to teach our students about crime prevention and safety, including online safety, to talk with students about issues they may be facing, to assist with investigating criminal activity, when needed, and to help protect the school community.”
Topics discussed with students include drug use, criminal mischief, underage drinking, peer pressure, and nearly any other issue that students want to explore. Lt. Dan Belles, of the Colonie Police Department, as well as Bethlehem SRO Det. Caitlyn Krage, repeatedly tell children that they should always feel free to contact the police at school or at police headquarters if they experience violence at home or school or have other difficulties they believe the police could help them to deal with.
“We have really good rapport with the kids, the teachers and the staff,” Krage said. “I feel very comfortable and welcomed in the school.”
SROs serve other important functions.They provide security at many school affairs, including proms, concerts, sports games, and graduations.
“We will respond immediately if any troubling issue comes up at these events,” said Belles.
In addition, in order to keep students safe en route to school in the morning, Bethlehem police organized what they call a “bike train,” which also includes other means of transport, including scooters, rollerblades and skateboards. Parents who want their children to participate have their children ride to various central locations not far from the schools they attend.
They are met there by police officers who then escort the “train” of students to their elementary and middle schools. In the process, officers teach children important rules of the road, including riding with, not against, the flow of traffic, obeying traffic signs, indicating which direction they are going at intersections by using proper hand signals, keeping both hands on the wheel, never texting while biking, and always carefully looking both ways before crossing a street.
Internet safety is a vital component of both districts’ prevention efforts to keep students from dangerous situations. Sidoti said that sexual predators tend to prey on lonely or troubled teens, many of whom have low self esteem, possibly a troubled home life, and few friends. These criminals are experts at winning the child’s trust, finding out their interests, and becoming a confidant.
“The Internet has taken the place of the playground in the modern era,” Sidoti said, stressing the importance of parental monitoring of children’s internet usage. Stranger danger is a related topic.
“Children need to know never to interact more than very briefly with or give personal information to a person unless they know them,” said Sgt. Michael Whiteley, in the police juvenile department in Bethlehem.
Another ironclad rule frequently mentioned: Never get into a stranger’s car no matter what the driver says or does to entice them. Candy or toys are common lures for young children.
Drug prevention efforts by the police increase as students enter middle and high school. Older students are not always aware of the significant dangers posed by drug and alcohol use and abuse. For example, Sidoti said, marijuana is many times stronger than it used to be years ago, and is now frequently laced with Fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid.
One of the priorities of police in both areas is the importance of keeping children out of the criminal justice system, if possible. Both towns have a Youth Court, made up of high school students, which imposes sanctions on students committing relatively minor criminal or delinquent behavior. Participating students take on such roles as judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, defense advocate and juror. Youth Court has been proven to reduce future delinquent behavior and saves students from having a criminal record.
“Some kids have tough lives”, Belles said. “We reason with them and try to get them to understand why their behavior is unacceptable.”
“We want them to know that our school resource officers are approachable, as are police in general here. We’re not the bad guys. We don’t want them to be afraid of coming to us with their problems. Judging from interviews with students from age 6 to 16, they both learn from and appreciate the presence of police in their schools and in their neighborhoods,” he said.