Columbus Police Department officer Toby Combest patrols Friday February 22, 2013 at Columbus North High School. Sometimes Combest, reports to intervene in a problem situation with student. More often though, it is simply rapport-building by police officers with students, faculty and staff that makes a police presence on campus an asset in keeping it a calm and friendly place for all. (Joe Harpring | The Republic)
Columbus Police Department officer Toby Combest chats with freshman Nick Burge Friday February 22, 2013 on the sidewalk in front of Columbus North High School. Sometimes Combest, reports to the school to intervene in a problem situation with student. More often though, it is simply rapport-building by police officers with students, faculty and staff that makes a police presence on campus an asset in keeping it a calm and friendly place for all. (Joe Harpring | The Republic)
When Columbus Police Patrolman Toby Combest stops at Columbus North during the high school’s lunch periods, the off-duty officer checks the license plates on suspicious vehicles or tracks down freshmen who are not allowed to leave campus during the school day.
Occasionally he is needed to break up a fight.
Combest usually spends more time patrolling outside the school than inside its walls.
“When we are only there for two hours a day, we don’t walk the halls,” said Combest, who is paid for that time by Bartholomew Consolidated Schools Corp. “While the school does a lot of things in-house, I know people would feel more secure by consistently seeing an officer both inside and outside.”
Police and school officials and some parents said they would like to have a law enforcement presence at Columbus North and East high schools all the time, in the form of security officers.
December’s shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that left 20 students and six teachers dead has brought to the forefront the issue of security at schools.
“I know I’d feel more comfortable with the (full-time police) presence,” said Jenny Kim, whose daughter, Emily, is a Columbus North freshman. “And I think other parents would be reassured knowing that someone is always there.”
Kim said she believes her daughter, as well as most other students, would feel more secure with an officer’s presence.
But unless there’s an unforeseeable incident, the only other times you’ll find police at high schools are during sporting events and a few other after-school activities.
Full-time school security officers won’t be walking the halls at either North or East any time soon for one simple reason: money.
More than two-thirds of U.S. police departments that serve more than 10,000 residents had full-time school security officers only 10 years ago, said Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix, but the numbers have dwindled as federal funding has been reduced.
While the officers address crime and disorderly conduct in or around schools, they also build relationships with students and faculty.
The federal Community Oriented Policing Services program funded most of these officers, Maddix said. The COPS program provides a maximum federal contribution up of to $125,000 per officer position for approved salary and benefits costs.
COPS, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, provided more than $1.22 billion in funding for programs and assistance just one year after being created in 1994.
However, funding for the COPS program was cut five years later by 44 percent, to $685 million, according to the program’s website.
COPS received a one-time, $1 billion windfall in 2009 to hire, rehire or retain nearly 5,000 officers. However, funding dropped just two years later to $495 million, according to the COPS website.
Maddix said a request he submitted last spring to obtain COPS funding for two school security officers in Columbus was denied. The officers would have been employed by CPD, but assigned to East and North high schools. After he got the news, Maddix was informed that funding had dropped by 40 percent during the past few years, the police chief said.
“The money keeps getting smaller and smaller,” he said.
Diminishing funding is only one part of the problem.
Larry Perkinson, the students assistance coordinator for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., said that COPS grants are good only for three-year periods. While some renewals are made, COPS was never intended to fund one city or school corporation indefinitely, he said.
“Eventually, every community has to find a way to fund those officers on their own,” Perkinson said.
Maddix and Perkinson know the odds are stacked against them, but they plan to apply again this spring for funding from the COPS program.
A proposal being considered by the state legislature would set aside $10 million each year that school districts could use to pay for half or $50,000 — whichever is less — of the cost of a school security officer. The bill has the support of the Indiana State Teachers Association, and it passed the Senate 43-7 on Feb. 25. The bill awaits action in the House.
State Sen. Tom Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, one of the bill’s co-authors, said that the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was the impetus behind providing additional security for Indiana schools.
“As sad as it is, it takes events like Newtown to really open up your eyes to this,” he said.
Wyss said that he would rather help pay for school security officers, who would have a law enforcement background and be trained in how to work with students, than consider arming teachers. If a shooting were to happen at a school, a school-based officer would have more training in how to fire a weapon and deal with the stress of the situation than a teacher who has been shown how to fire a gun, he said.
“To go and put a teacher in that spot is, I think, ridiculous,” he said.
The proposal doesn’t list an end date for the funding, but lawmakers could alter the amount of money given to school districts that apply for funding in two years. That means the funding could increase or decrease, and superintendents are leery about adding an employee when they can count on having the money to pay them for only two years.
The most likely way to get the necessary funding is through several public and private sources at a variety of levels that include Columbus-area foundations and philanthropic organizations, Maddix said.
Even if funding were not an issue, there are no safety guarantees in local schools.
Perkinson noted that Columbine High School in Colorado had school security officers on campus when two teenage gunmen killed 12 students and one teacher there in 1999.
“It’s not a sure-fire umbrella, but if you can help to break that code of silence among students, you’ve provided a valuable service,” Perkinson said.
Connecting with students
Providing security is only part of what Maddix would like to see school security officers do in Columbus.
“It’s also about gathering intelligence and building relationships,” Maddix said. “If good relationships are made, students are going to want to tell that officer about past or future crimes that other kids are talking about.”
While school security officers would focus on the high schools, they could make visits to middle and grade schools and help administrators with unexcused absenteeism and security checks, Maddix said.
More than 99 percent of high school students don’t create problems, Combest said. He thinks that if he could spend his entire day at a school, it would allow him more interaction and better relationships with the students.
Officers need to be approachable to teenagers, Perkinson said.
“Someone who will talk to the students about their rights, and says I am here because I don’t want to have anybody hurt,” Perkinson said.
Indiana’s attorney general said Thursday that every school district in the state should consider having a police presence.
Greg Zoeller said he supports the bill in the General Assembly to create or expand school-security officer programs. He said these officers are placed in schools to do more than just “guard the door” and that they can become mentors for students and prevent problems before they occur.
“You can eliminate a lot of the problems with bullying, drugs and weapons,” he said at a news conference. “Some of the kids (security officers) worked with could really help identify some of the problems. They were also able to learn about the problems the kids had with issues at home, and some of them had significant problems with mental health.”
Local districts would make the call about whether they’d staff their schools with law enforcement, Zoeller said, adding that every district should prioritize safety in their school buildings.
“I doubt you’ll see many schools that don’t think this would be a benefit,” he said.
Tom Lange, a reporter for the Daily Journal of Johnson County, a sister publication of The Republic, contributed to this story.
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