HUDSON–This spring two deputy sheriffs started their duties at most Columbia County school districts. As certified school resource officers (SROs), they have in-school offices in every district they serve, and when on duty in schools they are armed. In September, additional SROs will join them, allowing each school building to have an SRO on site for a higher proportion of the school week. Recently two of them spoke of their experience so far.
Deputies Wendy Guntert and Todd Hyson were assigned to SRO duty by County Sheriff David Bartlett and report to Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Brian Molinski. Overall SROs serve five of the county’s six public school districts: Germantown, Hudson, Ichabod Crane, New Lebanon and Taconic Hills. In telephone interviews June 17 and 24, Deputies Guntert and Hyson said their initial goal was for each of them separately to visit every building in every district at least twice a week, but they adjusted their schedule to circumstances. “Sometimes we just step in,” said Deputy Guntert. “Sometimes we’re in a school for an hour, sometimes a day.” Sometimes they went to one school but then were called to another.
Their major activities include routine walks through the schools, giving presentations and helping at special events.
Hudson City School District officials mentioned seeing SROs eating lunch with students in the cafeteria, though in reality, Deputy Guntert said, she rarely had time for lunch. But when they do eat in school cafeterias, Deputy Hyson added, they interact with students, teachers, and staff.
A “touch base” walk-through includes observing halls and grounds, noting safety concerns, such as broken windows, and dropping in on classes, especially health, industrial arts, art, music and study hall. The library is “a great place to interact with students,” said Deputy Hyson. The SROs have also monitored recess, making sure the students stay on school property.
“A lot of the time we get calls from principals to deal with a situation,” said Deputy Hyson. That includes parking and traffic issues and “kids making bad choices.” As examples, he cited “setting off fire alarms” and students who “bring silly string for pranks.”
In June, both deputies note, “kids are antsy,” with the warm weather and the prospect of summer vacation.
The deputies experience the districts as different from each other, but the differences they mentioned result from the varying size of the student population. “We see the same issues in all districts,” Deputy Guntert said.
SROs give presentations to students on topics like drugs, peer pressure and prom safety. Next year the SROs intend to discuss Internet safety lessons in 7th and 8th grade classrooms. These lessons will include what happens when someone posts personal information on social media sites.
When the SROs first came, said Deputy Hyson, “A lot of kids were asking why we were there. Now they’re used to it.” He said the deputies want the students to “feel comfortable” with them.
The “little kids” in the primary schools, Deputy Hyson added, “go wild when they see us. They get excited. They ask about our uniforms and badges.”
Special needs students also show a relatively high interest in the SROs. “I spend time in special needs classes,” said Deputy Guntert. She said that the deputies also became “a huge supporter” of Hudson’s Kindness Club. “They do a lot,” she said.
“Kids come to us and say, ‘I really didn’t want to make a police report on this, but I feel I need to talk to someone,’” reported Deputy Hyson. When this happens, the SRO listens to the students and tells them about their options.
How do parents react? “A lot of the time we’re there during arrival and dismissal,” when parents are more likely to be present, said Deputy Hyson. “Older kids are walking out saying good-by to us.”
“Sometimes parents contact us,” said Deputy Guntert.
“If two school kids are having difficulties with each other, we call the parents,” said Deputy Hyson.
SRO’s intervene “by direction of principals or superintendents” and “only when other sources don’t work,” said Deputy Guntert.
To qualify to be an SRO, the deputies— after several years working as police officers—took a one-week certification course.
For September, the Sheriff’s Office plans to reassign two full-time deputies from road patrol to SRO duty. With a total of four active SROs, the intention is for one to serve full time in the Ichabod Crane district, one to serve full time at Taconic Hills, and the other two to float between the Germantown, Hudson, and New Lebanon districts. If Chatham joins the SRO system, according to Deputy Guntert, the two floating officers will serve four instead of three districts.
One potentially positive result of doubling the SRO force is letting students “have a lot more face time with us,” said Deputy Guntert. Currently, “there are lots of kids in the larger districts who will never see us.”
Hudson City School District Superintendent Maria Suttmeier brightened on May 20 when asked about the SRO experience so far. She indicated she was looking forward to next term, when there will be more of them.
When asked in June whether SROs had received any complaints against them, Deputy Guntert said, “The biggest complaint is that we aren’t there enough.”