It has been almost two weeks since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people and ignited a national policy debate. The New York State Sheriffs’ Association is calling on lawmakers to include funding in the state budget to provide at least one armed school resource officer at every grade school and high school in the state. A few Hudson Valley leaders are weighing in on the proposal.
The non-profit state Sheriffs’ Association says there are about 4,750 public schools and nearly 2,000 private schools in New York educating students in grades K through 12. The Sheriffs’ Association estimates that the cost of the proposal would be roughly equivalent to that of adding one teacher to each school, or one per building, depending on the district. Executive Director Peter Kehoe says this works out to about $400 million.
“There are ways to reduce the total bill, but it’s going to be very expensive,” says Kehoe.
He says the number of SROs has dropped in recent years because of a lack of local funding. Some schools already have SROs that are funded by the school district, the county government, or both. Kehoe says the idea is to have an armed person on scene should an incident occur, but the most important reason is for the SRO to have a deterrent effect. Kehoe says placing armed SROs in schools is really community policing.
“School resource officers carrying weapons, sure, but, it’s more than the weapon, it’s the relationship,” says Thomas.
That’s Democrat Richard Thomas. He’s mayor of Mount Vernon in lower Westchester County.
“We need our law enforcement to have a stronger relationship with our children, with our communities,” Thomas says. “And that’s what we have to focus on.”
Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro says school districts in his county already have armed SROs.
“Dutchess County with the county Sheriff’s Office program has long implemented our school resource officer program, but we do it uniquely in that we partner the resource officer with mental health professionals,” says Molinaro. “So we have county mental health professionals in and working with school districts training on mental health first aid, identifying incidents of bullying where students maybe feel isolated. We try to identify individuals who truly need the help. So it’s about providing safety but also ensuring that those who are struggling have an outlet.”
Molinaro would like the conversation on the state level to refocus.
“I think, as a society and as a state, we need to talk about anger. We need to talk about hatred. We need to talk about violence and how to confront that. And New York has a great deal of gun control laws,” Molinaro says. “I think we’re at a point in the state where we need to have serious conversations about how we interact with one another in ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to live independent, safe and successful lives, and really invest in those services and support.”
Mount Vernon’s Mayor Thomas says SROs have been back in his city’s schools for about two years.
“This was done at a time when tensions were flaring up all over the nation and we’ve been able to step into that void and build trust on both sides of the badge,” Thomas says.
Kehoe says that while the Sheriffs’ Association has been a proponent of placing SROs in schools for some time, this latest idea is an effort to broaden the proposal and offer a statewide solution that could be implemented relatively quickly if funded.
On the national level, President Trump has floated a few ideas to improve school safety, including arming teachers, an idea New York Governor Andrew Cuomo condemned.
“Oh, that’s a great idea. Let’s turn our schools into armed camps,” Cuomo says. “We can’t get teachers money to buy paper and pens but now we’re going to arm our teachers and teach them how to use a firearm. So now you’re a combination teacher/police officer. I mean, it’s a ludicrous comment.”
A few days later, Trump tweeted that arming teachers would be up to the states, and that armed educators (and trusted people who work within a school) must be firearms adept and have annual training.
Calling for additional funding to improve school safety, the New York State School Boards Association said in a statement that “the public is best served when local boards of education, operating within the boundaries of their legal authority, choose what approaches are best for their district.”