Harrisburg Schools Hire New Safety Officer As City Approves School Resource Officers

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The aftermath of the recent large-scale fighting at John Harris High School is expected to rekindle the long-running discussion between the Harrisburg School District and City Hall over law enforcement presence in schools, an issue that has been strained in recent years. .

In announcing Thursday that it had reached an agreement with the district for city officers to conduct more frequent checks at the high school, Mayor Wanda RD Williams’ administration also reiterated the city’s desire to have dedicated resource officers in the schools. Meanwhile, the school district this week hired a new director of security who could serve as a school police officer, though the district does not expect him to serve in that capacity.

Since School Resource Officers were last assigned to Harrisburg schools more than a decade ago, the city and school district have engaged in sometimes contentious debates over what type of security personnel – with which types of authority and under whose control – should be assigned to the city. schools.

The most recent discussions about how best to improve safety in the district follow several high school fights that have sparked growing outcry from parents, including a scuffle filmed earlier this week that sent a student to the hospital.

At this point, however, it would be premature to say where further discussions between the school district and city administrators might lead, said Harrisburg School District Superintendent Eric Turman — even though the city has explicitly stated that she wanted to put officers in the schools, a move the neighborhood has resisted in recent years.

“It’s about the two of us, both sides, putting all our cards on the table,” Turman said Thursday. “We just want to make sure we’re on the same page about the possibilities.”

On Tuesday, the court-appointed receiver in Harrisburg approved the hiring of Wendell Morris, the former chief of police for Exeter Township, just outside Reading., as the District’s new School Police/Safe Schools Director, with a salary of $115,000 a year.

Although the position is technically new, school officials said Tuesday it was expected to fill the duties of former school security director Quinton Cobb, who left for another job during of the summer, the new position having more extensive functions.

The job description for the new position states that the director must have training under Law 120, Pennsylvania’s basic law enforcement qualification and “must have [the] ability to obtain SPO designation from [the] Court of Common Pleas.

Under state law, an SPO is a school police officer, employed by a school district and who can petition the court to be granted certain law enforcement powers; these include the ability to issue citations and carry a firearm.

The position is different a school resource officer, or SRO, which is a municipal police officer assigned specifically to work in schools under an agreement between a school district and one of its constituent municipalities.

Despite the requirement in the job description, school administrators told PennLive Tuesday night that Morris’ hiring was not intended to establish a school police force in the district; Morris’ primary role would be “to engage local police forces,” district receiver Lori Suski said, rather than acting as a full-fledged police officer.

“The district wanted the person to be a former police officer, just to get a different perspective,” Turman said. “If at some point the district decided to have SROs or SPOs in the district, at least that person would be able to oversee them.”

To be clear, there are no plans to establish such a presence, Turman said, but “you just wanted to make sure you had the right person if you decided to go in that direction.”

On Thursday, however, City Hall made it clear that it wants to have such a presence at schools, beyond officers who will perform “wellness checks” at John Harris.

“We are in favor of SROs,” Matt Maisel, a spokesman for Mayor Wanda RD Williams’ administration, told PennLive Thursday. “We would be happy to provide them if the school district wanted them.”

The cost of ORS is usually split between a school district and the municipality that employs the agent; funding for the district to pay for these costs is available, and “we encourage them to use it to hire school resource officers,” Maisel said.

The Harrisburg School District last had ORS in 2008, after which it was cut amid the financial crisis; dating back to 2000, the district and city had as many as 15 such officers serving in schools.

The return of ORS to schools has been launched several times in the meantime. As late as 2019, former mayor Eric Papenfuse said he and the school district reached an agreement that would put ORS back into schools the following year, a plan that ultimately did not materialize.

When discussed in previous years, the idea had been pushed back by parents, community advocates and some council members who feared officers were seeking a legal remedy for every student misbehavior.

Experts also frequently warn against a school-to-prison pipeline, especially since, while some studies show that school policing to deter crime also disproportionately targets minority students.

As it stands, Harrisburg has 46 school safety supervisor positions, according to Turman, though not all of them are filled. During negotiations between the district and its support staff union earlier this year, union members specifically raised concerns that low pay for safety monitors was impeding hiring; the new collective agreement increases the minimum wage for these positions to $15.50 per hour.

Pennsylvania schools are required to submit annual safety reports with incident data — but these are self-administered and notoriously inaccurate.

Maisel said Thursday that Harrisburg police do not necessarily see a trend of school violence, but parental concern expressed in calls and emails to Williams has increased.

“We know the parents are really upset here,” Maisel said.

Apart from John Harris on Thursday, students said fights at school were commonplace – but incidents involving as many students as seen in this week’s video were notable.

The sight of two students punching each other happens at least once a week but is considered “another day in high school,” one student said.

A fight that turns into a real melee is more like an annual phenomenon, said another student – “a fight that goes down in history, once a year,” he felt.

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