In the November 11 edition of the Sunday Repubican there was an article entitled Pharm parties leading some Western Massachusetts teens to misuse of prescription drugs suggesting drug use amongst teenagers is still a problem in western Massachusetts. It would seem logicial that the presence of a police officer at the high school might help avoid the tragic stories that are described in this article.
Last month's decision by the School Committee to remove the police officer stationed in Longmeadow High School showed two things, neither of them reflecting well on that committee. It revealed an air of Longmeadow exceptionalism, a confidence borne of the naive belief that the problems affecting other cities and towns do not exist here. Secondly, it laid bare the school vs. town divisiveness which so many town politicians disclaim in theory and practice in fact.
The LHS principal was on record as saying that he wanted the police officer to remain in the school. In addition to promoting the safety and security of the school, the officer had been used in the health curriculum and to help teach forensics. But Superintendent Marie Doyle damned the police officer, known as the school resource officer (SRO), with faint praise by saying that while she would love to retain the officer if she "had all the money in the world," the position simply was not a priority in light of all the other areas she valued more.
The School Committee debate focused on the fact that retaining the officer would "cost" the school budget $32,500 in the future, whereas now the officer is carried on the town-side budget. To the taxpayer, it matters not a whit how the SRO is situated in the budget's line items. For the School Committee, it mattered a great deal. If the officer was a freebie, at least from their perspective, the majority of the members were fine with the expense. If it cost them something from "their" budget, well, that was another matter altogether.
For years, we voters have heard the mantra, "It's one town!" from our town leaders. But the SRO debate showed how narrowly the School Committee can look at the allocation between town and school services. If the SRO position was worthy when it was carried entirely on the police budget, then it is worthy if it is carried partly on the schools budget. It should not matter if it's all one town. How many times have we heard School Committee members declare their fealty to fiscal rectitude and to looking at the needs of the whole town, and not just the school system? When parochial budget concerns trump good policy, the "one town" rhetoric looks pretty empty.
The decision to axe the police officer could be chalked up to narrow-minded bean counting until one realizes that the school budget is over $30 million. The cost of the police officer, which will be borne by the taxpayer in any event, was about one tenth of one percent of the total budget. Yes, the School Committee was debating an item that was one one-thousandth of the school budget. Mathematically, it's like the difference between batting .325 or .326 over the course of a major league season.
Undergirding the hand wringing over the placement of this salary in the overall town budget was a belief that Longmeadow High School just does not need the presence of a police officer. John Fitzgerald said there had been no police officer in his 33 years at LHS. The Superintendent said that a survey showed that nearly 90 percent of the students feel safe at the school.
When East Longmeadow instituted its school resource officer program in 2006, it did so "in light of the violence that has plagued school systems throughout the country." In 2011, when East Longmeadow began an initiative to combat underage drinking, it was spearheaded by its SRO. Of the SRO, it was said, "Don Cavanaugh has his ear to the ground constantly. He has his finger on the pulse of the schools and we're able to head off some of these problems at the pass."
In 2010, the Ludlow school department happily paid for half the cost of a police officer. The Ludlow School Superintendent said that the state anti-bullying law created "a tremendous need" for a school resource officer. "We're not staffed for this," he said.
This Spring, after a Minnechaug student went public with concerns about lax drug enforcement at the high school, the Hampden-Wilbraham Superintendent said that the school resource officers at both the middle and high schools were valuable in keeping drugs out of the hands of kids. He said, the officers "help us ensure that all reports are investigated and acted upon in accordance with state and local statutes."
So, if underage drinking, bullying, and drugs are problems in East Longmeadow, Ludlow, Hampden, and Wilbraham, surely Longmeadow is affected too. Or is our little burb so different from the rest, so much better, so much more privileged and enlightened that we do not need a police officer in LHS? Just recently, Longmeadow instituted an anti-bullying policy that contemplates the involvement of the school resource officer. State law requires schools to investigate bullying complaints. Perhaps the School Committee figures bullying has been eradicated, or that it never existed in Longmeadow.
This attitude reminds me of a recent Town Meeting when there was a proposal to impose a modest fine on those engaged in the public smoking of marijuana, a bylaw that Amherst, of all places, had passed. The members of the Longmeadow School Committee then in office voted against it, and not coincidentally, the measure was defeated. It was as if this problem were so far removed from the concerns of Longmeadow that it could be laughed away.
In Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." That hubris, when applied to a fictional town, is a source of humor. Hubris, in a real town with real kids, can lead to tragedy. If a serious bullying incident comes to light, or if drinking or drugs at LHS comes to light, the School Committee will rue the day it sent the police officer away.
Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.