New school resource officers report for duty in city schools

New school resource officers report for duty in city schools

New resource officers in Woonsocket schools are, from left, Patrolman Daniel Wild, Patrolman Tim Hammond, Patrolman Mike Velino and Patrolman Scott Breguet. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

WOONSOCKET – The number of full-time school resource officers in city schools has quadrupled since last year, and police are anticipating the change will bring about a safer environment for students and teachers.

In a change approved by the School Committee last year and funded in part by a grant from the Office of Justice Programs, the Woonsocket Police Department recently appointed two full-time SROs to positions at the city’s middle and elementary schools, with a third due to start at Villanova Middle School next week. The new positions are in addition to a full-time resource officer already stationed at Woonsocket High School, bringing the total number of SROs in Woonsocket schools to four.

According to Chief Thomas Oates, the change will enhance safety and improve communication between students and law enforcement at city schools. The new positions will also help the department create a positive impression of police among the city’s youth starting at a young age, with one officer visiting elementary schools and filling in at the other schools as needed as a dedicated “roamer.”

“It’s community policing on its most basic level. You’re not going to get any closer to the community than that,” said Oates.

Not everyone agreed the new positions were worth the cost when the proposal came before the School Committee last year. In addition to matching the $500,000 grant toward the first three years of the SROs’ salaries, the Woonsocket Education Department is paying the full cost to retain the SROs for a fourth year. Oates and Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt testified and wrote letters in support of the proposal, but Oates said he believes the real change in perception came about after the February 2018 shooting in Parkland, Fla., when a gunman killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and returned the topic of school shootings to the national spotlight.

“That shooting kind of changed the minds of a lot of people locally, I think,” he said.

While preparing for a large incident such as a mass shooting is part of the job description, most of the work revolves around defusing smaller incidents on a day-to-day basis, according to Patrolman Tim Hammond. Hammond took over as SRO at Woonsocket High School in August of last year, a position previously held by Officer Joseph Zinni. Hammond said much of his focus is around developing positive relationships with students who could tip him off to any underlying issues among their classmates.

“A lot of it is gaining relationships,” he said. “Most of it is building relationships with the kids because they don’t trust you.”

Today, fights between students often gain traction on social media long before staff members are aware of the issue. By developing a rapport with students, officers sometimes gain access to information they otherwise wouldn’t see. Detective Sgt. Phil Kamer, who oversees the department’s juvenile division, brought up the example of a recent tip about a potential threat at a Boys & Girls Club event that hadn’t yet occurred.

“Through social media, that information travels very quickly and the closer you are to that, the more lead time you have on that,” explained Oates.

The close access to the schools also allows officers to be on hand when emergencies unfold. Last October, Hammond responded after a student alerted staff that another student was carrying a handgun on school property. While police do not believe the teenager intended to use the weapon, the incident demonstrated the importance of remaining prepared and keeping an open line of communication with the student body.

It’s a particular kind of job, one that represents a big shift for officers coming from patrol. Patrolman Daniel Wild, who starts at Villanova Middle School next week, said he’ll have to adopt a different demeanor than the one he currently uses on first shift. In working with preteens, he’ll likely draw on his experience as a former rock climbing instructor to develop a mentoring relationship with the students.

“The SRO program gives us a chance to smile at the kids and show them that we’re human too,” he said.

The job also presents unique challenges, including the need to follow up with students daily and continue developing relationships even after a student gets into trouble. Patrolman Mike Velino, who started at Hamlet Middle School in March, said it’s tough for SROs to see a student they know fall off track. It’s a different environment than out on the streets, where an officer might arrest an individual and never come in contact with them again.

“It becomes more personal,” he said.

In addition to three full-time SROs at Woonsocket High School and both middle school buildings, Patrolman Scott Breguet will serve as a “roaming” SRO, a job that will likely take him into the elementary schools. Prior to this year, the department sometimes had a second officer stationed at the two middle schools, but occasionally had to pull that officer to fill in with other needs. The new schedule, said officers, will offer consistency for students and administrators, with the same SROs reporting every day.