WORCESTER, MA—A new school safety plan has been proposed by a city school safety task force that would include liaison officers who would not be present in the public schools.
Like school resources officers (SROs), school liaison officers (SLOs) will be Worcester police officers.
However, unlike SROs, who were stationed full-time inside of a school building, six SLOs will be assigned to four quadrants where they will be present for arrivals, dismissals and available to respond to calls from schools in their assigned area, Mayor Joseph M. Petty said.
"A lot of research went into this and the data from national level and the state level, and it became clear that this is something that can work," Petty said. "We're going to evaluate it after six months. It's gonna be a temporary (memorandum of understanding) with the police in schools and summertime for review."
In February, City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. recommended the removal of school resource officers in a report that included an executive order acknowledging the role structural and institutional racism has played and continues to play in the city, and a broad-based plan seeking to address those issues.
Before their removal, there were five officers at each of the district's five comprehensive high schools with two additional officers provided by the Police Department to serve the rest of the school system.
City Council votes to remove SROs
By March, the City Council voted 6-5 in favor of removing SROs from Worcester Public Schools, and giving the responsibility of proposing a new school safety method to the task force.
Each of the recommendations by the task force in the new school safety proposal require further development, Eric Batista, assistant city manager, said.
"The communication plan requires further development on that, the funding plan requires school committee vote on that, the training requires further development," Batista said. "In the plan, we've identified a timeframe in which those things will need to be in place and provided not only to the public but also be put in place for the purpose of the operations."
For training, he said the task force recommended more collaboration between the schools and police officers.
"Right now, the schools, they conduct their own training for their administration, any staff that is involved in the schools," Batista said. "Then the police officers receive their own specific trainings, so what we've asked is to do a more collaborative training on topics as such as trauma, youth development, de-escalation, anti-racism, implicit bias, and others."
He said they wanted to do more collaborative training so that any officer who is selected to be an SLO could get involved with training and development at the schools.
"So if the school is going through anti-racism or implicit bias training, the officers can be a part of that so it helps not only their development, and also their relationship with the school administration as well," Batista said.
He also explained how communication between the officers and school administrators could change from the SRO model to the SLO model.
"Historically, right now, a lot of the principals they contact, whether it's their safety director, Rob Pezzella, any incidents or situations, or within the high schools, what they do is they have an SRO," Batista said. "And so the SRO there, they can respond directly to any incident or issue that the principal may need him for."
Cellphones for officers
However, since SLOs will not be in the buildings, one of the recommendations was establishing communication between the Police Department and the school administrators by providing a cellphone to the officer.
"The liaison officers will be assigned to the schools, so the schools will provide a direct cellphone that administration, the principals, will have access to and they can call if they need them to attend immediately," Batista said. "Aside from that is the lieutenant that's in charge of the SLOs will be accessible to the administrators as well."
He said they also discussed how they would route calls to the SLOs if the schools called 911 or the Police Department number.
School climate was also part of the conversation, Batista said.
"When we talk about school climate ... it's a lot bigger than just the conversation about officers' response or the school safety," he said. "It's about adjustment counselors, it's about trauma, it's about trainings, it's about cultural sensitive trainings, about unconscious bias training, it's about discipline, it can even deal with curriculum."
He said that they recommended additional staff, such as wraparound counselors and school adjustment counselors.
"There needs to be a bigger scope and bigger development, comprehensive plan on school climate, the task force was not tasked to create something of that nature," Batista said. "That's the responsibility of the school but the task force can assist and support any of those decision."
Recommendations set for city leaders' consideration
These will be presented to the City Council on Tuesday, and the School Committee on Thursday, giving members an opportunity to discuss and ask questions.
The model will be implemented beginning in January, but there will still be opportunities for changes or recommendations to be made.
"However, to the School Committee that is recommending staff, is the addition of wraparound coordinators, that requires funding, which requires a School Committee vote, and may require our Council vote," Batista said. "Both bodies can decide to send it to the education subcommittee and do like a joint committee between both bodies to discuss it, and then from there, provide feedback."
It also provides the members an opportunity to discuss the model with their constituents or administrators and provide recommendations.
The task force included community leaders such as Petty, Augustus, Police Chief Steven Sargent and Superintendent Maureen Binienda, as well as organizations such as the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, Worcester Interfaith and NAACP Worcester.
Binienda, who was initially a staunch advocate for the SRO model, said that the SLO model is a "good alternate plan."
"We're gonna continue to provide safety in our schools, the training of our staff, and they'll be able to call them (police) for emergency and non-emergency reasons if they need to come to the school," she said.
COVID challenging school climate
Binienda disputed the idea that the school climate isn't good, but rather that is is challenging from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There were police in the schools, wasn't because it wasn't good school climate," she said. "It was, first of all, to have positive relationships with students, and staff and if it ever got to the point, that the police needed to intervene."
Binienda said that the administrator and principals were the first resort in the building, and police were the last resort.
"But I've never got to that last resort, that's why the police were there, not because we don't have good school climate in our schools," she said. "I think we already do have good school climate."
School Safety Director Robert F. Pezzella said that he will be speaking about the proposal after Thursday's presentation before the School Committee.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.