Cape Henlopen school board members are giving a student resource officer position another chance after operating without one since 2010. The board decided unanimously Nov. 14 to an officer back to high school despite problems with the position in the past.
“I will vote for this and if it fails, I will be back next year,” said board member Andy Lewis before casting his vote for an SRO.
Lewis recalled problems with a previous SRO, and asked whether the contract signed with Delaware State Police gives the district any say over who will be hired.
“We had an SRO that was horrible, and we told police we don't want him, and they sent him anyway,” he said.
In 2008, Cape's SRO, Cpl. William Matt, was at the center of a student arrest that resulted in a long court battle with former student Dane Wooleyhan. Wooleyhan sued the school district after a teacher said he elbowed her, and Matt arrested Wooleyhan for offensive touching. In 2011, Wooleyhan settled with the district for an undisclosed amount of money – minutes before the case was to go to trial in federal court.
Another SRO was involved in an incident at Shields Elementary in which a boy was included in questioning of another boy who had stolen lunch money from a third boy. The SRO explained to the child who became upset that he was trying to get the other boy to confess to stealing lunch money, but the interrogation frightened the boy and made him cry. His mother sued and later settled with the district for an undisclosed amount of money.
Despite past problems, Supervisor of Student Services Ed Waples said the district has a good relationship with state police now. Sgt. Bernard Miller, who supervises all SROs assigned to schools and has children in Cape Henlopen School District, has helped the district with many issues on a volunteer basis; Waples said he was certain Miller would assign a top SRO to the district.
“Police said they are willing to send us someone we want,” Waples said.
In April, Miller and Cape High Principal Brian Donohue lobbied for the district to hire an SRO. Recently, they were joined by members of a safety committee who recommended the board hire an SRO. The committee was made up of more than a dozen school administrators and parents who want an SRO in the schools, said board member Sandi Minard.
Minard was joined by board members Jen Burton and Sara Wilkinson in support of an SRO. “I trust we'll get someone appropriate,” Burton said.
The safety of students is a top priority, Minard said.
“SROs are trained to look for things that other adminstrators are not,” she said, adding an SRO can go visit a family and determine if there is a problem in the home. Waples said it is time-consuming when the district works with a family over a contentious matter.
“It takes a long time when you have a serious issue,” he said.
In particular, Waples said, an SRO can help with legal issues and help free up administrators who are inundated with other initiatives.
In today's schools, former principal Wilkinson said an SRO is a necessity to help run the building.
“An SRO won't prevent things from happening, but as a principal I would hate to be there without one,” Wilkinson said.
Lewis's comments were the only discussion of past problems with an SRO positions in the district. Following the Wooleyhan incident at the high school, the district terminated the SRO and hired Bill Collick as dean of students to handle discipline matters.
SROs and discipline deans have different jobs; SROs do not hand out discipline, Waples said.
However, as a state police officer, an SRO does have arresting powers.
In situations where an incident rises to an arrestable offense, Superintendent Robert Fulton said, the district currently calls in a state police officer to help handle the situation. The only change with an SRO would be that the officer is already in the building, Fulton said.
“In this case, we can establish a better relationship with police,” he said.
Board Vice President Roni Posner reiterated her previous concerns that one SRO could not handle issues at the district's seven schools. She also questioned the $80,000 price tag that comes with the SRO and said the money could be better spent shoring up safety at individual schools.
President Spencer Brittingham agreed cost is a concern. He said the SRO's salary could be higher than $80,000 because the salary is not specified in the contract.
“If we agree to something we're going to write a blank check,” he said.
Brittingham also criticized the short turnaround state police gave the district to sign the SRO contract.
“The board got this information not even 24 hours ago, and we're told we have to make this decision right away,” he said.
State police told district officials a decision was needed by November so that an officer can be trained, Waples said. An earlier letter had been sent to school districts across the state informing them about the process of hiring an SRO. Districts that had not already approved hiring an SRO were recently sent letters allowing them a last chance to sign onto the program for the upcoming year, Waples said.
Fulton said the district first heard of the latest letter Nov. 12, during an evening meeting of the safety committee.
Director of Business Operations Oliver Gumbs cautioned the board to carefully read the contract so that there are no surprises. He said the board also needs to make sure the contract is for one-year with no roll-over clause.
Money to pay the SRO position for the 2014-15 school year would come out of a discretionary fund, Gumbs said.
"I'm excited that we're going to have an SRO at the high school," Fulton said.