For Brian Stratton, the Sandy Hook school massacre crystallized one thing: Armed police officers should be present at every school, everywhere.
Spurred by the horrific events that left 26 children and educators dead in Newtown, Conn., the 44-year-old Marshfield resident started Citizens for Children’s Safety, an organization focused on mobilizing residents to persuade their own communities to invest in armed resource officers in every public school.
But the newly rekindled debate has also raised concerns from some civil rights groups who say that having police officers in schools can lead to the use of arrests in situations that should be handled by administrative discipline. Opponents also argue that schools will look and be run like prisons, and that funding for such an endeavor is simply not available.
Stratton, whose fledgling group has already attracted a sizable following, said the value and protection that would come from having school resource officers are worth the investment.
“This kid in Newtown killed his mother and gained access to her guns; there’s nobody who could’ve ever stopped that,” Stratton said. “But if there had been a police resource officer when that kid was shooting the windows to get to the school, [the officer] would’ve been locked and loaded and ready.”
Stratton said his organization will serve as a resource for residents who need help drafting proposals to local boards or committees and to persuade fellow taxpayers to fund the police positions, as well as other safety measures, like metal detectors, in every school.
“If we house each school with a police officer, metal detectors, bulletproof glass, better surveillance, it’ll be virtually impossible to mount an attack,” Stratton said. “It’s 2013 now, not 1972. Whatever it takes to keep my children and your children safe, we should do.”
Stratton, a music producer, is working with a couple of friends and a Duxbury-based law firm that is donating its time, to research the logistics of bringing armed police officers to schools in one community south of Boston to start with. Stratton said he does not yet know which community will be first, but he hopes that whichever one it is will have a resource officer in every school by the start of the next school year.
The idea appears to be resonating throughout some communities. In a matter of weeks, Stratton said, Citizens for Children’s Safety has gained well over 1,000 supporters, thanks to grass-roots efforts, including a website, Facebook page, and word-of-mouth.
“We want concrete numbers and our facts straight. You can’t go to town meeting with generalities,” he said. “What I’m hearing from parents is that this is common sense and that it’s about time.”
The idea of a school resource officer in every school is “a very positive thing,” said Russ Eonas, Plymouth County assistant district attorney, citing an instance in 2004 when a plot to mount a Columbine-style attack at Marshfield High School was stopped after police were notified.
“An incident was headed off because students had a relationship with the officer, and were comfortable telling the officer,” Eonas said. “It’s the district attorney’s position that it’s certainly a beneficial position because it creates a mutual respect for police.”
John R. Jerome, Brockton’s interim school superintendent, agrees that having officers in schools helps make students comfortable around law enforcement. The school district has its own dedicated police force with eight officers patrolling a total of 23 schools, he said.
The force may soon grow to 10, if the School Committee approves a recent unanimous recommendation from its finance committee to fund the positions. Additionally, the city’s police department provides the district with three school resource officers.
“That gives us access to 13 people. We have 23 schools, so we think we’re providing, for what we can afford, more protection than most,” Jerome said.
But the presence of law enforcement in schools does not always create positive relationships between officers and students, and could actually create problems for certain students, according to a study released last year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Citizens for Juvenile Justice.
A three-year review of the use of law enforcement in school districts in Boston, Springfield, and Worcester found that students who engaged in disruptive, but minor, misbehavior that could have been handled by in-house discipline, such as suspensions, would instead end up being arrested, said Matthew Segal, legal director at ACLU of Massachusetts.
The study found that African-American students and students with disabilities were more likely to be arrested at school.
“When there are officers walking the halls, student behaviors that in the old days would get normal school disciple, end up’’ resulting in arrest, Segal said. “What happens as a result, officers who are supposedly there to protect students end up harming them by causing them to get arrested, and by reducing their chances for success at school.”
The report is also critical of the high cost of having police officers in schools, particularly when the money comes out of school department budgets.
“Monies that can be going to teachers go to officers instead,” Segal said. “We have kids, we’re thinking about [safety] in the wake of what happened in Newtown, just like everybody else is. We just think that the school resource officer idea is a particularly problematic one in light of what’s already happened with school resource officers in Massachusetts.”
In Marshfield, where police have had a presence in the schools since 1994, school resource officer Bob Quigley said he has built a rapport with hundreds of students, a few of whom have gone on to become his colleagues at the police department. In the 19 years he’s been assigned to the schools, he said, he has made only two student arrests. Most of the enforcement actions involve citations for parking violations or possession of marijuana, he said.
The bulk of his work, he added, is actually educating students on issues like Internet safety and bullying, and being a liaison between the school and police departments. Having a school resource officer in every school would be “a great wish list.”
“Right now there is no funding for school resource officers,” Quigley said. “The ones in school now, the Police Department is paying for that officer to be there, and that’s one less officer on the streets. If we have a windfall of money that is out there, sure, we’d love one in every school. Is it reality? My opinion, no.”
State Representative James M. Cantwell, a Marshfield Democrat and former Norfolk County assistant district attorney, filed legislation this month to create a program that would allow cash-strapped communities to apply for a state grant to fund school resource officer positions.
“In my experience, it’s far better to have that contact between the schools and having a school resource officer,” said Cantwell, who is a friend of Stratton and supports the idea. “The resource officers have a major role to play there. They’re the eyes and ears so kids are comfortable getting to know an officer. If there’s bullying going on, the officers can be helpful, as well as for prevention of drug issues.”
Stratton said resource officers at schools should be funded out of police department budgets, and estimated that the average property tax bill would increase by $75 to $100 per year, per household.
“For the cost of one extra teacher in schools, you’re preventing a host of different problems,” he said. “Believe me, I have naysayers, people saying, ‘How are we going to afford this?’ It’s going to be a test of wills. Who’s willing to step up and vote ‘Yes,’ and who’s willing to step up and vote ‘No.’ ”