County Executive Robert P. Astorino Monday proposed legislation under his “Safer Communities” initiative that will provide School Resource Officers (SROs) from the county’s Department of Public Safety to the Somers and North Salem school districts for the coming school year.
Both school districts sought assistance from the county in creating dedicated SRO posts in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn. school shootings last year when Astorino launched Safer Communities. In addition, existing state police resources are not equipped to provide dedicated SROs to individual school districts, which created an opportunity for county police to help.
The proposed agreement sent to the Board of Legislators this week for approval calls for two county police officers to be assigned as SROs in the Somers Central School District. One officer will be assigned to the Primrose Elementary / Somers High School campus and a second officer will be assigned to the Somers Middle School / Intermediate School campus.
In a separate agreement, another county officer will be assigned as an SRO in the North Salem Central School District, serving the North Salem Middle / High School campus and Pequenakonck Elementary School.
Astorino said the officers would be assigned as SROs for one school year, beginning next month. According to the agreement, the school districts will pay the cost of the police officers’ salaries and benefits during the school year. When school is out, the officers will be assigned to other county patrols, and could be pulled from SRO duty as needed during emergency situations.
In response to the Newtown tragedy, Safer Communities has focused on ways that county and local governments, school districts and nonprofits can collaborate to offer practical and cost-effective ways to pool resources in order to prevent violence.
“The Safer Communities initiative is all about collaborating to bring resources together in ways that protect kids and families across Westchester,” Astorino said. “In this case, the county is stepping in with officers from our Department of Public Safety to fill a void. It’s a perfect example of how we can work together to share resources. What we are doing here is expanding the traditional definition of mutual aid so that we can adapt to current circumstances and share services more effectively.”
Public Safety Commissioner George N. Longworth explained how SROs can help prevent tragedies while fostering a safer environment within the schools.
“School Resource Officers work closely with school administrators to provide a safe and secure environment for students and staff. They maintain a visible presence at school buildings and grounds and provide a broad range of services to educators and students at the schools where they are assigned. We look forward to having a successful partnership with the Somers and North Salem school communities,” Longworth said.
For example, he said, School Resource Officers assist administrators in developing school security and emergency response plans, participate in lockdown drills, monitor hallways and parking areas, help screen visitors, perform security checks on exterior doors, direct traffic when needed and provide security at school and sporting events that draw large crowds.
SROs also provide student referrals to youth agencies and programs, participate in community-based drug and alcohol prevention programs, prevent or address bullying, and work with teachers to educate students about the dangers of underage drinking, drug abuse, driving while intoxicated, “cyber bullying” and “sexting.”
“Having an actual police officer in the schools, working directly with teachers and administrators and interacting with the students makes a huge difference and reassures parents that their kids are safe when they drop them off at school. We’re grateful for this partnership with the county and can’t wait for the start of a brand new school year,” said Deborah D’Agostino, President of the North Salem Central School District Board of Trustees.
Westchester County police officers have served as School Resource Officers at the Anne M. Dorner Middle School in Ossining and Walter Panas High School in Cortlandt.
Longworth said SROs are a good fit for the county police because the department’s patrol needs expand significantly in summer months. In summer when schools are closed the SROs will be deployed to busy county parks and pools, he said.
County Legislator Michael Kaplowitz who represents part of Somers supports the measure. “The safety of our children is our highest priority,” Kaplowitz said. “I am pleased that we will be able to provide the Somers and North Salem school districts with the officers they requested. At the same time, the agreement is fair to all Westchester taxpayers. The school districts will pay for the full and fair cost of these officers while they are working in the schools.”
MORE ABOUT ASTORINO’S SAFER COMMUNITIES INITIATIVE
Launched earlier this year, Astorino’s Safer Communities initiative has begun a close collaboration between the county’s departments of Public Safety, Health and Community Mental Health, local police chiefs, school superintendents, civic leaders and clergy. In addition to coordinating law enforcement responses and violence prevention, the program has also focused on educating the public about available mental health services and programs in close coordination with individual school districts.
“After Sandy Hook, we all asked what we could do to prevent this from happening again,” Astorino said. “As county executive and a father of three young children, I want to be part of the solution. The Safer Communities initiative has been good start.”
In May, Safer Communities held a school safety symposium with leading experts from federal law enforcement agencies, which focused on preventing school and college violence. More than 300 civic leaders, schools officials, local law enforcement, social workers, psychologists, mental health agency directors, advocates and family members attended the first-of-its-kind event. Astorino has directed county officials to release a report on the group’s findings later this year.
In June, the county announced a separate partnership with Mount Vernon that dedicates six county police officers to beat patrols in the city during the summer. That program has already had a serious impact on crime within the city, yielding more than one hundred arrests.