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School board hesitates before approving resource officer

After much debate and an unexpected vote, the school resource officer planned to start patrolling the Katonah-Lewisboro school district later this month was approved by the school board at its Jan. 24 meeting.

Despite the position having been planned since this past summer, and the recent completion of the officer’s training, members of the board voiced concerns about the SRO, particularly in light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and emails from the public in favor of and against it. But board President Mark Lipton emphasized that the position was not in response to the school shooting.

Lewisboro Police Chief Frank Secret (left) with student resource officer Andrew Llewellyn at his graduation ceremony from the Westchester County Police Academy on Dec. 14, 2012. In addition to normal policing duties officer Llewellyn’s primary responsibility will be specifically patrolling all schools in the Katonah-Lewisboro School District.

“This is a very important position,” board member Charles Day said. “We’ve talked about it for months. I’m not even sure why we are having this conversation at this point.”

Acknowledging warnings by Dr. Kreutzer regarding high student risk behavior statistics and emails from residents demanding armed guards or portraying the district as lackeys of the National Rifle Association for employing a police officer, the SRO is more necessary now more than ever, Mr. Day said.

The SRO position was filled in July with the hiring of South Salem resident Andrew Llewellyn. A former Lewisboro Highway Department employee, he is slated to begin working in the district in mid-February.

Not a unanimous priority

Citing funding concerns, board member Stephanie Tobin brought the topic up for discussion in part because there may be greater priorities facing the district, she said.

“While I very much see the value of the SRO in the high school, it’s a grant that is coming along with a recurring annual expense,” she said. “And this is an expense that previous boards have said is not a priority for us. When it comes to budget time, if the choice is class size versus SRO, I am going to fund the teachers.”

The SRO was previously cut partly because the district was paying 100% of the cost to provide the officer, Mr. Lipton said. The new officer was made possible as a result of an $80,000 grant secured through the efforts of state Sen. Greg Ball and Town Board member Peter DeLucia. Future funding for the officer will be split evenly between the town and the school district, Mr. Lipton said.

What an SRO does

With the majority of the officer’s time spent working with the school district, it was a well-struck financial deal, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Kreutzer said.

The officer will cost the district between $35,000 and $40,000 annually after the grant money runs out, according to the district.

The position will be filled by an armed police officer, but the majority of his duties will not focus on security, Dr. Kreutzer said. The main focus will be on student risk behavior, with only a small aspect of the job being site security, he said.

“The primary focus of their work is student safety under risk behavior,” he said. “It is really not brought on board for site security. This is about helping and building positive relationships with students and building their resiliency to make positive choices.”

Parenting or patrolling

Board member Dr. Peter Treyz agreed with Ms. Tobin that the money could be better spent on education. In regard to the student risk behavior Dr. Kreutzer highlighted as the main charge of the SRO, Dr. Treyz said the school already addressed student risk behavior issues with the school psychologist and that student risk behavior was ultimately the responsibility of parents.

“I’m sorry to say this,” Dr. Treyz said, “but student risk behavior is the families’ problem, not the SRO. This is where parents are supposed to be doing their due diligence. An SRO is icing on the cake.”

But not all parents do their due diligence or have the time, student board member Sam Gordon said. Impulsive and risky behavior are inherently high in high school students, and the district should invest in addressing and curbing it, he said.

“Students can have large influences on other students,” Gordon said. “To penalize all the other students because a couple of parents made poor decisions, I think it’s the school’s job then to intervene and provide the best environment for our community.”

Dr. Treyz intended to abstain from voting, but he begrudgingly conceded a vote in favor of approving the SRO contract, which passed unanimously.

Dr. Kreutzer assured Dr. Treyz he would have a chance to revisit the topic during the budget approval process. And addressing Ms. Tobin’s concerns, Dr. Kreutzer said that if the budget should fail to receive approval, the SRO would certainly be off the table.

A unique role

“Psychologists don’t make up for what that officer will do,” Mr. Day said.

Having watched his own child pass through the school system and listened to the stories that accompanied that experience, Mr. Day said he wished there had been a resource officer while his child attended the district.

Dr. Kreutzer firmly voiced his support for the SRO as he advised the board that the district was under no obligation to approve the position, but the town would lose a considerable investment of time and money into the officer’s training if the SRO was not approved.

“The impulsive behaviors teenagers make are not big decisions, but they have hugely disproportional consequences,” Dr. Kreutzer said. He used a teenager having an alcoholic beverage and getting into a fatal car accident as an example.

“This is the life-or-death type of intervention we’re talking about and advocating for,” he said.

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