Shelton school resource officers: Part mentor, part adviser and part enforcer
Carly Shomski, a senior at Shelton High School, said she wouldn’t hesitate to stop by school resource officer (SRO) Mary Beth White’s office to say hi or chat.
As the SRO, White has a multifaceted role at the high school that balances the warmth of a trusted mentor, advice of a counselor, and strict professionalism of a police officer.
“She creates a safer environment for all the students,” Carly said.
Hunter Garrett, a junior, said it gives him peace of mind to know that White is “trained to help and handle situations.”
“I really try to be visible so that the students and the administrators know I’m here,” said White, who’s in her first year as an SRO.
'A nice change of pace'
A 23-year member of the Shelton Police Department, she saw the opening for the SRO job on a department posting. “I thought it would be a nice change of pace,” she said.
There have been a few women SROs in Shelton over the years, and White thinks she’s a positive influence on students.
“I think I can approach kids a little bit softer,” she said. “They’re less intimidated by me. I may not come across as a threat.”
Part of the job is “knowing your school,” she said, and that includes doing daily walk-arounds inside and outside the building to see “what’s out of place.”
The SROs work in tandem with security officers at the high school, who are the first line of protection, checking the photo IDs of all visitors entering the building.
Also, the building has been outfitted with security measures such as wire mesh and security “film” on the windows to slow down entry by a possible intruder.
Reaching out to students
In addition to security issues, SRO responsibilities include monitoring traffic on school grounds and reviewing city police reports to see if any students have been cited, and then “to reach out to them,” White said.
When administrators are concerned about a student, they’ll call White in to address issues ranging from using the wrong parking space to conflicts in their lives at home and in school.
“We talk to them, if a student feels he or she would be open to talking,” she said.
The SROs also meet with administrators, visit classrooms and field such student questions as, “Is it hard to become a cop?”
When a conflict between students isn’t resolvable or when a crime has been committed, administrators will ask for White’s help.
She has made arrests at the high school, if the crime has occurred on school grounds.
She intervenes “if a situation can cause alarm or create an unsafe situation in the school,” she said, and her resolutions are “what’s in the best interest of the children involved and the school as a whole.”
“It’s so different every day,” said White, from joking around with students to dealing with fights or threats of violence.
'It's never the same'
Officer Ken Giangregorio, the SRO at Shelton Intermediate School and Perry Hill School, agreed the job has no typical daily pattern.
“It’s never the same,” Giangregorio said. “In a minute’s notice, things can turn around.”
Giangregorio was one of the original SROs in Shelton, serving for nine years at SIS, and returning to that post last year after a four-year hiatus. Perry Hill serves students in the fifth and sixth grades citywide.
Social media is now a focus
One of his primary responsibilities is dealing with students’ misuse of social media. For example, some text messages can be threatening or harassing, just as phone calls used to be.
Both Giangregorio and White are dismayed to find that texting and other cell phone communication has replaced face-to-face communication.
“There’s no interaction there,” White said. “They don’t know how to talk to each other.”
The fight on the playground has now been replaced by spats on Facebook or through texts, the officers said, and social media harassment probably provokes more fights at school these days than in the past.
Student cell phone policies
SIS and Perry Hill staff “are always on top of things,” Giangregorio said, and the Board of Education has developed a Bring Your Own Device technology policy.
The high school allows students to use cell phones only as educational tools, and phones are not allowed during the school day at SIS and Perry Hill.
“Students are encouraged to lock up their phones in their lockers,” Giangregorio said.
In other areas, students often ask him advice involving relationships, he said, or about “something they’ve seen or heard outside school.”
Administrators often bring younger students together to resolve conflicts and “talk it out,” while at the high school, “some kids don’t want to talk,” he said.
In terms of security, “we’re basically here to respond instantly to an incident because we’re right here,” he said. “Our position in the school is no different than being out on the street.”
“We’re an in-house 9-1-1,” White said. “You have to be aware of your surroundings.”
Treated like staff members
Both officers said they appreciate how their roles play out at the schools.
That’s the great part of our job — us being accepted as staff members,” Giangregorio said. “The kids look at us as a staff member. We’re kind of no different than their teachers.”
White said there’s a difference between dealing with young people “on the street” and in school.
“I’m going to see these kids every day and keep involved with them,” she said. “I stay more engaged.”
On a patrol call, “you may never see a kid again.”
White appreciates “being able to get through to a student. You see a completely different side of them.”
For Giangregorio, the rewards of the SRO job are getting to know the students and being able to interact with them.
Last year, as part of a Pink Week fund-raiser, students spray-painted his hair pink. “The kids loved it,” Giangregorio said.
Administrators: 'Proactive presence'
“It’s their presence in immersing themselves in the school community that leads to their success,” said Beth Smith, headmaster at Shelton High.
And it builds trust among students, staff and parents.
Smith said she sees White “as a proactive presence” at school. Recently, a high school student “did something in the community,” Smith said. “We sat down with the student for an intervention to communicate expectations.”
Smith echoed other administrators who welcome the benefits of getting to know a police officer in a positive way, and not as “ a bad experience.”
White will be called on to speak in health classes and law classes at the high school this year, Smith said.
“I don’t look at the SRO as a police officer working for the police department,” she said. “I look at her working in conjunction with me. I consider her a part of my staff.”
Smith was a special education teacher and department head at Shelton High for 17 years, and returned seven years ago to serve as headmaster.
She praises the SRO program. “I see it as an extremely beneficial program, and I hope it continues long past the day I retire,” Smith said.
Called 'an invaluable resource'
“The benefits can’t be measured,” said Kenneth Saranich, SIS headmaster. “The SRO has brought to the school an invaluable resource.”
Saranich welcomes “the connection with the police department, so kids know an officer is as approachable as a teacher. They want to know that it’s someone they can go to for help.”
“I hold SROs in the highest esteem for the development of our kids and our community,” said Saranich, speaking as an administrator and a Shelton resident.
He said he hopes “it’s always a position the city will fund.”
Funding the program
The SRO program started in Shelton in 2000 when the city received a federal COPS (Community Orienting Policing Services) grant to put officers in the schools.
The city of Shelton elected to fund the SRO program when the grants ran their course several years ago, said police Chief Joel Hurliman.
“It gives us a means of school security,” said Hurliman, noting it also allows students to interact with a positive role model.
He drew a parallel with the role the Boys & Girls Club plays in the lives of young people. The SRO officers might encourage students to concentrate on doing their homework rather than “getting in trouble,” Hurliman said.
Both SROs “are doing a fine job,” he said.
Making a difference
Lorraine Williams, principal of Perry Hill School, has praise for Giangregorio. “He’s a positive presence,” she said. “He’s very proactive.”
He conducts classroom lessons on school bus behavior, anti-bullying and the use of social media, and is called in to help with such issues as “mean” behavior and minor theft.
The SRO program “is really great, and it has made a difference,” Williams said.
Giangregorio said the role of the SRO has adapted to a changed world that includes violence on the streets and in schools.
“School is the place known to the kids as safe,” he said. “We feel we’re a part of making them feel safe.”