School safety monitors to gain legal power of constables

Date Published: 
April 4, 2014

Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Visitors at all Indian River schools have found a stricter open-door policy. This outdoor buzzer and camera allows secretarial staff to admit guests. Staff can enter with electronic swipe cards.Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Visitors at all Indian River schools have found a stricter open-door policy. This outdoor buzzer and camera allows secretarial staff to admit guests. Staff can enter with electronic swipe cards.The Indian River School District aimed to better protect its schools this school year by hiring full-time school safety monitors, all of whom were required to have law-enforcement experience. Now, the monitors are likely to officially become constables, beginning next fall.

But, though Delaware law allows constables to make arrests, the IRSD School Board does not plan to allow employees to exercise that power, due to the complications that result.

“We want to make sure these people are in the building for safety and security, but we don’t want to take them away for one minute from a thing they have to do,” said Assistant Superintendent Mark Steele. “If it gets to the point where they make an arrest, then [they’re stuck] in an office for paperwork or in court,” he emphasized.

The monitors themselves echoed that concern. But when the final decision on the issue of constables was announced, Preston Lewis, administrator of student services for the district, said, “There were no concerns. They certainly understand the direction the district is taking.”

School board President Charles Bireley said the highlight of the decision was “the fact that they would get more training. It is always better for anyone in any position — police officers, nurses, anyone.”

“Constables are considered sworn officers,” emphasized W. Scott Collins, school board member and Selbyville police chief.

That means better training at law-enforcement levels. Certification as constables requires them to undergo additional training and target practice (several days more than they have now, possibly during summer or teacher in-service days). However, they also get better access to training. They’ll learn Delaware law, and they’ll be eligible for nearby police training.

“The training part of it is huge,” but it also decreases the IRSD’s insurance deductible in the event of an incident, Steele said.

“The more training they have, the less risk you have, in theory,” said Patrick Miller, chief financial officer for the district.

The IRSD could pay less on liability insurance if someone sues. “Usually if there’s a shooting, [a plaintiff] will sue everybody involved,” aiming for anyone with deep pockets.

The monitors will have rights to restrain people, if necessary, with handcuffs.

“They do have arrest powers. However, as a governing agency of our campus monitors, we will not grant them the right to make an arrest,” Steele said.

Collins compared that to the powers of municipal police. As Selbyville police chief, he is granted the power to make arrests, he said, but the Selbyville Town Council could revoke it.

Collins said during discussion of the policy that he hoped to see the school board pass it, which it did on Jan. 27, unanimously, with Board Member Shaun Fink absent.

“It’s something I’ve been pushing since we created the positions. Right now … they don’t have that state authority to go hands-on with a student and detain them until someone gets there.

Right now, they have basically have the same authority as any other staff member.”

That is, except for firearms, and even that was slightly uncertain as the related issues were discussed.

Guns on school grounds

The IRSD has agreed to allow school safety monitors to carry handguns — usually the same ones that they carried as law-enforcement officers. Former police officers can apply to carry concealed weapons with a federal permit.

But Delaware law prohibits firearms in schools.

When the IRSD asked for clarification of that law, the Delaware Attorney General’s Office refused to provide an interpretation.

“We wanted to make sure we covered every aspect of what we were doing, as far as legal ramifications if we were doing anything wrong … or against Delaware law,” Preston Lewis, administrator of student services, said.

“We did ask the Attorney General’s Office to give us a particular ruling, which they really felt they could not do at that particular point in time,” Steele said. So, with no ruling, the IRSD has decided to interpret that as a “green light.”

IRSD monitors carry their guns openly, so people can plainly see them as a security deterrent.

“I think the whole point of the program is to be a very visible security presence,” said Selbyville Middle School monitor Richard Chamberlin. “We can be seen, and, hopefully, that could act as a deterrent. I hope if, God forbid, somebody would try to do something at one of the schools, they would know that there is an armed presence.”

The firearms belong to the monitors. The district owns no weaponry, Lewis said.

“We do not want the public to think they can start carrying weapons on school grounds,” he added.

Principal Neil Beahan of the Southern Delaware School of the Arts originally had questions of the armed employees.

“I asked if they felt comfortable with the guns around the kids,” said Beahan, noting that the officers’ professional training put him at ease. “I can’t say I would have felt that way before.”

As for arming teachers or administrators, “Not a chance. Let the people who are trained [do that],” Beahan said. If the monitor is needed, “He’s just a walkie-talkie or phone call away from knowing what’s going on.”

“I am not for teachers being armed, for the simple fact that they haven’t been trained,” said Indian River High School monitor Doug Hudson, “and unless you are in a situation that is life-or-death, you don’t know how you’re going to react.”

Law-enforcement officers train for many hours in how to react in a potentially deadly situation. It takes extensive training to overcome the “fight-or-flight” instinct and sensory overload, Hudson said. “As a trooper, you’re around it constantly — responding to accidents, shooters, robberies, rape — so you kind of get used to it.”

These employees have retired from the Delaware State Police, U.S. Secret Service and Washington Metro Transit Authority, as well as New Jersey, City of Philadelphia and Prince Georges County, Md., police squads.

For instance, Hudson is a retired state trooper, youth officer and kids’ major crimes detective who felt he could “give back to the community” by serving IRHS.

Duties, requirements for monitors reviewed, tested

This is new territory for IRSD and most Delaware schools. Other organizations already use constables, such as Sussex County Council, Dover Downs, Christiana Care Health System, Delaware Technical Community College and the University of Delaware.

The Red Clay Consolidated School District in Wilmington also just completed the constable process.

“It’s legally not a security guard; it’s generally someone with public-safety background … a more thorough background check,” said Brian Moore, Red Clay public safety supervisor. “When they’re working, they’re the same as any peace officer.”

A constable or SRO investigates fights, custody issues, parking lot accidents and more.

“Handcuff them, make sure everybody’s safe, then wait for the police to come out,” said Moore, who is also a reserve police officer. “Make your presence known. The bottom-line goal is you want to protect kids’ ability to learn … to be a calming presence.”

Recently retired Delaware law-enforcement officers could bypass some of the constable testing. Out-of state officers still have to prove their knowledge of Delaware law, Collins said.

The IRSD monitors’ paper tests are slated for mid-April.

A state board must approve the IRSD’s application for constables and yearly renewal. The board establishes qualifications, training requirements and whether a constable is permitted to carry a weapon.

Delaware law gives constables the same powers as peace officers and law-enforcement officers, to protect life and property.

They’ll only have such power when on duty at school.

Using that power for good

However, the monitors have been permitted to use deadly force since the October school board meeting. The school safety monitors must act within existing laws and only when believing it necessary in order to protect students, employees and visitors from apparent death or serious injury.

Delaware law forbids deadly force (when protecting others) if any alternative could prevent the imminent danger of serious injury or death. Also, monitors may not use deadly force on people whose actions are only destructive to property. The IRSD safety monitors are not permitted to fire warning shots or use them a signal for help.

District policy also forbids monitors from pursuing an individual who has left the school grounds.

“We just do the policy to make sure we’re covered and stakeholders in the community understand” what should happen in that situation, Steele said.

The district was encouraged about the newly hired safety monitors when an incident occurred last autumn at Phillip C. Showell Elementary School.

“I was on the playground with the kids when I saw an individual walking from town, down the sidewalk in front of the school. And he stopped right there at the playground for a couple minutes,” said safety monitor Tom Troublefield, who watched the man before approaching and talking to him. “It was just the way he [spoke], and his demeanor didn’t seem to be right.”

Troublefield contacted Selbyville’s school resource officer, who found that the man had a criminal background. The police removed him when he later returned.

“There’s a really good dialog between the police officers and monitors,” said Steele.

“This illustrates to the public that our safety monitors have already proven themselves invaluable to keeping children safe,” said Superintendent Susan Bunting, awarding Troublefield an “Above & Beyond” district award.

“That’s the key. These are highly trained officers,” said Collins, calling the incident a “well-executed … almost dry-run” of an emergency drill.

If Selbyville Middle School was responding to a suspicious person nearby, staff can “secure the building in less than a minute,” with officers on-site “within three minutes,” Collins said. “That’s the caliber of people we got. That’s huge.”

Safety monitors on the move

This is a brand new program, so the workers are building the job description.

“There’s really no path to follow. We’re kind of learning as we go right now. Obviously, the main goal … is to keep the kids and the faculty safe in any ugly situation,” said Hudson, “neutralize any threat.”

“Many of them will deal with disruptive students or parents,” Lewis said. Sometimes people come in to blow off steam, but end up harassing the secretarial staff, he noted. Just the appearance of a safety monitor can calm them down, he said. The same goes for breaking up student fights.

Safety monitors are rarely sitting in an office.

“It’s not an office job,” said Hudson. “I pretty much walk all day long. I sit maybe 15 minutes to eat my lunch.”

The safety monitors aren’t just bodyguards. They’re found in any and every corner of the building, inside and out, checking windows and doors and looking for easy targets. They often arrive before other staff and cover any situation, from bus duty to emergency drills.

“Just go through that school, make sure everything is locked down and secure,” Troublefield said. “If you see anything suspicious, act on it. Obviously, we are not police officers anymore, but we have a school resource officer.”

“I work at the discretion the principal and assistant principal,” Chamberlin, who has been asked to mentor some children and occasionally discipline students. Otherwise, he’s walking, too.

They bring a new set of eyes to IRSD’s new comprehensive school safety plans, finding “things to consider we don’t normally think of,” said Principal Renee Jerns of Millsboro Middle School, such as finding overgrown vegetation by the fence where someone could hide or something could be hidden. “Our goal ultimately is to make sure we have procedures and protocols in place to ensure student safety, no matter what. … We’re going to have a pretty solid school safety plan.”

They also ensure students and visitors are where they’re supposed to be.

“Being a trooper almost my entire adult life, you never ever let your guard down. Going shopping, going to the mall, you always understand your surroundings and what’s going on,” said Hudson of trying to maintain a police mindset while showing the kids “I’m a normal guy.”

Chamberlin said he aims to establish a rapport with students, “showing them I’m someone they can trust if they have any issues — be they issues at home or issues at school.”

Police response

The schools have long histories with local police. For at least 15 years, the IRSD has relied on school resource officers (SROs) from the Delaware State Police, Selbyville and other police agencies. Several officers still split their time between all the schools, providing security and other assistance. But safety monitors are on-hand all day, every day.

The G.W. Carver Academy now has a full-time SRO, due to the alternative school’s complex student population.

Ocean View police regularly visit Lord Baltimore Elementary School for unannounced patrols and walk-throughs.

“We haven’t reduced the amount of time at the school. However, we get busier and busier every year,” said Police Chief Ken McLaughlin, calling it “worrisome” when they can’t visit. “Now we know that Barry’s always there, … the first line of defense in position to manage any type of critical incident. And that’ll buy us time. That’ll give us time to get someone on-scene.”

“We’ve got a good relationship. We’re fortunate at Lord Baltimore that the school security monitor is a recently retired state trooper that has worked in this area for years,” McLaughlin said. “So it’s someone that we know, have a long-standing relationship with.”

McLaughlin is also an LB parent.

“It’s very comforting for me to know that someone like Barry is there, that he’s onsite every single day. He truly is our first line of defense.”

Parents and principals give positive feedback

“Actually, we’re getting nothing but good response around the parents and kids. I walk down the halls, and these kids are giving me high-fives,” said Troublefield. “I think we’re a positive role model for these kids.”

“It’s like he’s always been here,” said Jerns of Edward Cathell. “I think that’s crucial.”

Despite some controversy at the beginning, “We have had nothing but positive feedback. Only one person called a radio show opposed,” said Steele.

“I think it’s just that everyone understands his responsibility, and he is armed for our protection,” said Jerns, and students are more likely to be curious and ask questions about the handgun. “We accept that as part of him; they don’t notice it anymore.”

“I have had kids come to me and talk about problems, about a lot of different subjects,” Hudson said, from personal problems to traffic tickets. “If it’s something serious, I tell them where to get the help, [from] a counselor or advisor.” He provides a link for the students to the sometimes-intimidating world of law.

“One of my goals is to build relationships with the kids. They hear what’s going on outside the school,” Hudson said. “I want to have the kids come to me if they feel there’s a threat … that, in turn, helps everyone.”

“I’ve had kids tells me they feel safe with Mr. Cathell, ‘Mr. Cathell’s gonna protect us,’” said Jerns, who received no parent complaints about the new monitor.

Beahan echoed the sentiment, having heard nothing but positive comments about ?????? Campbell.

“I’m satisfied with the measures that the school district is taking to safeguard their facility and students and staff,” commended McLaughlin, as a parent and police chief. “It’s controversial to put armed security guards in schools. It’s a bold move on their part and, hopefully, serves as a deterrent to anyone that would think of doing some criminal act … at one of our schools.”

“Delaware is really no different from Connecticut, and that has had a major incident,” Troublefield said, referencing the 2013 Newtown shooting, “so I think the Indian River School District has done very well in taking the lead and putting armed safety monitors in the schools to help secure the buildings and protect the students and staff.”

A desire to work with children led at least some of the monitors to apply to work in IRSD schools. Besides decades in law enforcement, Troublefield has coached tee-ball and softball.

“I always thought it was fun to see how a kid can grow with you helping them,” he said.

“A lot of them approach me and talk or just say, ‘Hi,’ said Chamberlin, a soccer coach and former youth officer. “It’s helped being involved in the soccer program, as well, because I’ve been able to develop more of a relationship with a lot of the boys.”

Hudson said he’s heard a lot of thank-you’s from parents and students.

The cost of safety

The price of the added safety is paid entirely by local taxes, because there are no state-funded security positions, with them not being part of the state unit count that funds a given number of teachers per school.

Monitors earn about $200 daily, which costs the district a total of $776,500 annually, including employment costs, such as Medicare or Social Security. They do not currently have pension or healthcare benefits, but those are possible in the future. Currently, they are contracted staff for 180 workdays.

By making the monitors employees (instead of the original plan for contractors), the IRSD only paid $400 apiece to add monitors to the existing district liability insurance, already valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. As independent contractors, the employees would have needed to pay $2,000 or $3,000 each for liability insurance.

As employees, they have better access to cohesive training, and the district can use them for more day-to-day operations.

Lewis said there have been no discussions about a possible pay raise related to the monitors becoming constables.

Steele gave Lewis “all the credit” for implementing the school safety monitor program. “He did a fantastic job setting this up.”

“We’re finding that they’re a great asset to the team. Building principals are happy,” Lewis said.

“We’re here to protect the kids and the staff, and that is our main job,” Hudson said. “It’s a good gig. I enjoy it very much.”

“All 14 of us are committed to the safety and wellbeing of the kids and the staff at the school. We certainly would not have taken this job” otherwise, Chamberlin said.