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Tantasqua to study resource officer

July 30, 2009
STURBRIDGE — The possibility of a Tantasqua school resource officer is being studied.

As a result of a meeting between the Tantasqua Regional School Committee, Sturbridge Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee, and Sturbridge Police Chief Thomas Ford, the issue of a school resource officer (SRO) — and how to potentially fund one — will be examined by the Tantasqua Study Committee.

"It's on the agenda, which was our objective," said Finance Committee member Larry Morrison at the conclusion of the discussion.

The issue was first raised in March, when the Finance Committee expressed the concern that there had not been a resource officer in place for approximately three years. In that time, Ford had repeatedly applied for grants to re-establish the position first created in 2001 through a state grant.

Tantasqua Superintendent Daniel G. Durgin explained that once again, "The COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) grant did not come through for the funding of the resource officer."

While the majority of Wednesday's meeting was spent debating how the services, cost and jurisdiction of Tantasqua High School would be divvied up, Durgin pointed out that the officer who was once a regular face at the high school, was actually shared between all three schools in Sturbridge: Tantasqua Junior and Senior high schools and Burgess Elementary School.

"In the past, the officer was assigned to those three buildings," he said, "and they would spend a block of time in each building."

Ford verified that all of his attempts to secure funding for a resource officer was with all three schools in mind.

"The request that I made was for all three schools," Ford said, indicating that the base salary for an officer in that position would be in the ballpark of $45,000, adding, "The overtime, the benefits would be taken care of by the town of Sturbridge."

Ford went onto explain that while such programs as the Student Police Academy and RAD Kids still bring the police to the schools in positive situations, and daily walk-throughs of the high school maintain a police presence there, he wants to see the full-time officer reinstated further strengthen the relationship between the Police Department and Sturbridge's school community.

The chief said not only would the officer provide an element of safety, but would "be somebody there within that culture that's trusted that understands how a school system works."

School Committee member Michael Valanzola of Wales, who is also a Selectman in that town, said that he, and Wales Police Chief Dawn Charette are in favor of having an officer in the school.

"I remember my time [at Tantasqua]," Valanzola said. "It wasn't long ago, and we had an SRO."

"The fact that there was a police officer in the school gave a sense of security," Valanzola added.

Sturbridge Selectman Ted Goodwin, also a Tantasqua graduate, agreed with Valanzola.

"The fears of having a school resource officer, I think, are misplaced," Goodwin said. "I know that when I attended here, it did make you feel safer."

The "fears" Goodwin referred to were primarily financial in nature.

"A school resource officer is a good idea," said School Committee member Francis Simanski. "I don't believe it should be funded through the school budget."

School Committee member William Haggerty agreed with Simanski, saying that while he thought it would be a good idea to have the officer, "It just doesn't seem logical to me at this point."

'Chilling effect'

James Cook of Brookfield voiced the strongest concerns over a steady police presence, saying his son, a Tantasqua student, said an officer in the building would have a "chilling effect."

"Our mission here is to educate, not incarcerate," Cooke said.

He went on to say he didn't know how keen Brookfield would be on contributing to a Sturbridge police officer's salary.

Division of the duties, or amicable financial contributions from each of the five Tantasqua towns, will be part of the Study Committee's deliberations.

Cooke further said he was uncomfortable with the possibility of officers from different towns having arresting power in neighboring towns as a caveat of the resource officer's job.

Durgin indicated that there is already a mutual agreement between the Tantasqua towns that regardless of the origin of the first officers on scene in an emergency, they will have jurisdiction on the property. Ford added that with the exception of egregious violations of the law, any arrests are up to the school's administration.

"It's at the recommendation of the administration what the outcome would be," Ford said.

With the debate over the need for a resource officer and the options available for funding one now facing a more organized front, a lot of questions remain to be answered before anyone takes up an official post in a Sturbridge school.

"Since 1966 over 140 students and teachers have been killed in U.S. schools," said Selectman Thomas Creamer at Wednesday's meeting. "Would a school resource officer have changed those numbers dramatically? I don't know, I can't answer that question, I don't think anyone in this room can answer that question."

News staff writer Christopher Tanguay may be reached at (508) 909-4132, or by e-mail at ctanguay@stonebridgepress.com.

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