A meeting set for Friday between school officials and local police could go a long way toward determining whether a police presence at the middle school will soon be as familiar as gym class and homework.
Administrators in District 91 are contemplating the pros and cons of hiring a school resource officer who, they say, would serve largely as a mentor to adolescents. The position would be filled by a current Forest Park police officer. How the post would be funded, or how costs would be split, has yet to be determined. The position certainly would not be unique to Forest Park as hundreds of schools across the country employ police officers to help bridge the gaps between young adults and authority figures, as well as the disciplining of students. But Forest Park educators acknowledged public perceptions that the middle school is struggling with behavioral issues, and said they accept that by bringing law enforcement into the hallways critics may feel vindicated.
Principal Karen Bukowski said she can’t control how the decision is spun, but she invited community members to visit the school and draw their own conclusions.
“Spend some time here. We’re not having rampant disorder,” Bukowski said. “There’s learning going on. That’s evident by the high schools our kids are getting into. That doesn’t happen by accident.”
Bukowski envisions the officer interacting with students on a very social level, largely during lunch periods, after school activities and sporting events. The sooner students feel like they can trust the officer, the more likely it is they will begin confiding various dilemmas they might not otherwise put a voice to.
As a disciplinarian, the district said any infractions that rise to the level of criminal activity will be handled by the officer as a matter of law. Behavior problems that can be addressed by school policy will be referred to the school.
“Thus far this year I can’t think of a single incident that would have involved an arrest,” Superintendent Lou Cavallo said. “We’re not looking for someone to come in and clean up.”
Bukowski said she has no preference whether the officer wears a uniform while on school grounds. Eventually she would like to see the role expanded to include more “programming,” possibly during class time.
Under a grant funded anti-bullying program last year, two Forest Park officers wore polo shirts while on campus. She said that program was successful and students opened up to those officers. Police Chief Jim Ryan did not return phone calls seeking comment on the proposal.
Over the course of the previous school year, Bukowski estimated she called police to the middle school three times to assist with a discipline issue. According to disciplinary statistics compiled by the school that account for everything from wandering the halls without a pass to fighting, the overwhelming majority of infractions last year stemmed from the use of foul language.
“I think I could count on one hand the number of fights last year,” Cavallo said.
School board member Mary Turek said she’s looking forward to hearing more about the program at the board’s next meeting in November, but already has a positive feeling about the proposal. Turek has said the middle school’s unflattering reputation is one of her priorities and an SRO would be a step in the right direction.
“Let’s create a better environment,” Turek said. “Some parents say there’s no discipline at the school others say (their) kid is disciplined unfairly. We could go back and forth. This is just another resource.”