School police officers balance various roles

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HONESDALE, PA — About five years ago, Honesdale High School’s front entrance got a makeover.

The change, which included a new design for the parking circle, as well as new tiling on the entrance wall and a renovation of the administrative offices, wasn’t just cosmetic. Guests who visit the high school are now required to be buzzed in through a vestibule—a security measure that means no one gets into or out of Honesdale unchecked.

All six of the schools in the district were fitted with these locked vestibules.

With physical updates also came the hiring of Joe LoBasso, former chief of police for the Honesdale borough. LoBasso was the first school police officer at Wayne Highlands, officially its director of safety and security.

This year, Wayne Highlands hired a second-in-command to LoBasso, in the form of the decorated former state police officer Brian Vennie. Vennie and LoBasso are a two-man department officially recognized as a police agency, and work with outside police and security agencies in securing Wayne Highlands’ six schools.

“We’re liaisons,” LoBasso said of his and Vennie’s position in the district.

As safety and security measures at public schools in the U.S. have become paramount—the use of security cameras in public schools increased from 19 to 81 percent over a 15-year span, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—school resource officers (SROs) have also become more common. By definition, an SRO is a “career law-enforcement officer who is deployed by a police department or agency in a community-oriented policing assignment to work in collaboration with one or more schools,” according to the National Association of School Resource Officers.

School police officers are slightly different, in that they’re hired by the district, but fulfill the same ultimate goal.

There is no formal outline that a SRO must adhere to, but the association recommends that officers take at least 40 hours in school policing before taking assignments in schools. Both Vennie and LoBasso are certified through the association.

Nearly every district in The River Reporter’s coverage area on both sides of the river has a SRO of some kind. Following the Newtown shooting in 2012, Wallenpaupack hired four officers to cover its schools. New York Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther worked to get the Eldred School District $75,000 to hire two armed resource officers from the sheriff’s office within the last year.

“This is a huge priority for everyone—students, parents and staff,” said John Bell, superintendent of Delaware Valley School District in Pike County, PA, about safety at his schools. “We have our own police force with six officers and all schools are locked during the day and visitors are buzzed into the main office. We have implemented many physical upgrades to our schools to make the schools safer. We also recently upgraded our entire video system, which includes several hundred cameras to monitor indoor and outdoor activity at all schools.”

Threats from the outside and concern over school shootings has led to an uptick in school security, but officers spend much of their time concerned with the welfare of students inside the school. LoBasso and Vennie, who don’t wear uniforms and don’t openly carry a weapon, say they’re trying to create an “omnipresence” in the district without being threatening to the students.

“We’re not overbearing with police presence,” LoBasso said. “That’s not the way that should be set up… It should be all administration on-hand first—school counselors, psychologists, whatever—they’re taking care of looking at the issues first, and if they see a need to reach out to the school police, then they reach out.”

LoBasso has instituted updated safety and security protocol at the schools, including requiring that classroom doors be shut and locked during class. The pair also help run lockdown and emergency drills, respond to incidents such as vandalism, talk students through speeding tickets, handle situations with upset parents and conduct frequent meetings and site visits with the administration.

“You’re here for security, you’re here to make sure the kids are safe,” Vennie, who has served in a similar capacity at East Stroudsburg North and Western Wayne school districts said. “But you’re also here to guide kids, educate kids, counsel kids… Maybe there was a domestic at the house last night, and mom or dad had interactions with the police, and the child’s here and now they’re upset. We understand exactly how those situations work. And we can take a few minutes with that child and say, ‘Look, everything’s going to be okay.’”

In interviews with The New York Times, SROs across the country said they find themselves having to strike a three-pronged balance among counselor, teacher and a member of law enforcement.

SROs nationally have also played a role in policing the opioid epidemic as it intersects with students. LoBasso and Vennie can issue misdemeanors, but are expected to turn more serious offenses over to local law enforcement. This caused some issue in 2016, when police chief Richard Southerton refused to sign a memorandum of understanding between the district and the police force as a mode of “passive protest” about the school’s discretion in handing cases over to the police. Today, LoBasso said he’s managed to create a tight network of law enforcement agencies that will back his efforts at Wayne Highlands.

“We do have other resources that we use, as far as help covering other schools, whether it’s the sheriff’s department, the local police, state police, game commission, fish commission, park police,” LoBasso said. “We all have an interest in school safety.”

No one is more interested in school safety than parents. While Wayne Highlands has stepped up security in part to assuage parents’ concerns, superintendent Gregory Frigoletto told The River Reporter earlier this year that he’s interested in fostering an environment in which students trust those who are meant to protect them.

“You need to have a climate and culture that is one that is conducive to providing a safe environment,” he said, “that students know that if they see something and say something, there’s going to be somebody in that school that they can go to and they can trust.”

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