As parents demand more police presence in schools, communities across the Twin Cities metro area are grappling with how to pay for officers despite lagging budgets.
From Mahtomedi to Minnetonka, school resource officers have been the victims of budget cuts in the last several years as jobs have been reduced to part-time or eliminated altogether. It’s a loss communities are now reassessing as parents push for ramped-up security after the elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
“This is an issue that I know school boards all across Minnesota and the country struggle with ... and I don’t have an answer for them,” said Scott Knight, police chief in Chaska, which lost three of its four school resource officer positions to school budget cuts.
While no one tracks data on school resource officers, or SROs, experts say numbers dropped drastically once the economy tanked in 2009. Over the past few years, seven school officers in Minnetonka were cut to four. Farmington lost one of its three officers. And this year, Mahtomedi High School traded a deputy officer for a private security officer to save $23,000 a year.
But it’s a trend that has slight signs of starting to reverse.
Since the Newtown shootings, schools from Watertown to Chaska have begun re-evaluating adding officers or starting them for the first time. At the National Association of School Resource Officers, turnout at classes has doubled.
“We’re not calling for necessarily increased police presence, but if it’s done right, every school in America could benefit from having an SRO,” said Mo Canady, the group’s executive director. “There has already been a dramatic increase.”
A tough decision
School resource officers have become mainstays in schools for decades, especially after the Columbine school shootings, which spurred police and schools to partner more. But in the last few years, funding, which is split by cities and school districts, has waned both locally and nationally.
After the Newtown shootings in December, parents across the Twin Cities pushed school boards to ramp up security. Even in Watertown, a west metro school district with only 1,600 students, parents urged school leaders to boost security, even arming teachers, after Newtown and the arrest of Delano resident Christian Oberender, who had assembled 13 firearms and left notes about the school massacre and wanting to kill.
“We’re such a small community that we’ve never felt a need,” parent Mary Ann Somers said of schools not having school resource officers. “Now ... it kind of brings it home.”
Estimates, though, show it would cost $138 million a year to have a school resource officer at each of the 1,968 public schools in Minnesota, based on an average cost of $70,500 per officer. In Chaska, three SRO positions were cut by Eastern Carver County Schools, but district spokesman Brett Johnson said they’re surveying the community to see if people want the positions restored.
“The overwhelming response from the community was to keep the cuts from the classroom ... those feelings might have changed,” he said.
In Mahtomedi, the high school replaced a sheriff’s deputy with a private security guard to save money, and now is the only high school in Washington County without police protection. It’s a move Sheriff Bill Hutton opposed, arguing that they now can’t easily exchange information between the school and law enforcement.
“It’s not about having the school resource officer at the front door with a gun when students walk in, but that conduit with the community and the school,” said Hutton, who was recently contacted by other schools looking to add officers. “They’re obviously making priority decisions.”
The cuts have come at a time when officers’ responsibilities are growing, providing security and a police connection to teens for everything from cyberbullying to drug prevention.
“They provide a lot of upfront stuff before crimes happen,” Knight said. “That’s the biggest loss — they’re not there in the day-to-day.”
At Chaska High School, Trent Wurtz is like a counselor, security officer, teacher, investigator and father figure — all at once.
He teaches bullying prevention, monitors Twitter and Facebook for harassment, tracks down youth gang members, confiscates prescription pills and other drugs, deals with stolen iPods or other school thefts, and on rare occasions, arrests students. More often, teens stop by his office, decked with a purple Chaska Hawks flag, to do everything from report harassment to vent about a relationship breakup.
Without officers like him, that work would be passed on to other school staff — if at all.
“If there wasn’t an officer here, it would go unreported,” said Apple Valley officer Doug Baird, a school resource officer at Eastview High School.
Officers try to blend into the school, cued into the latest trends or gossip and encouraging kids to text crime tips. In Minneapolis, Lt. Kim Lund even has school administrators on speed dial. While the numbers of school officers in Minneapolis hasn’t changed, Lund, the former president of the state group for juvenile officers, said elsewhere, positions have been reduced to part-time, or on-call. She worries that takes away a valuable connection between police and students.
“We want kids to see us in a positive place,” she said. “We don’t want them to feel afraid if something bad happens on the street to turn to us.”