Police in 1 Minnesota town set up shop in schools

Published 11:08 am Friday, March 1, 2013

JORDAN, Minn. — One small-town Minnesota school district is taking a unique approach to keeping students safe: The police are moving in.

In Jordan, south of Minneapolis, officials looking at school security after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut decided the police would set up satellite offices in public schools. Officers will conduct some of their daily work from the schools, including taking calls and filling out paperwork, while still going out into the community to patrol or respond to emergencies. The hope is the armed officers, with their squad cars in school parking lots, will discourage — or meet — any would-be attackers.

Jordan schools haven’t had an attack or a problem with violence. But the plan proposed by the police chief received unanimous approval from the City Council and the school board, and it seems to have the backing of parents and school administrators.

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“Sandy Hook had everything in place security-wise, they really did. But what they didn’t have was a trained, armed officer at the front door,” said Jordan Elementary School Principal Stacy DeCorsey. “We will have that the majority of the time.”

Schools across the U.S. have been looking at security after the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six workers dead. The National Rifle Association called for putting armed guards in schools. President Barack Obama proposed more funding for counselors and school resource officers, whose primary assignment is to work in schools. Some districts hired retired officers. One Colorado district asked officers to write reports from their squad cars in school parking lots.

Many schools already have police officers assigned as resource officers to promote community programs, and some of them have offices in schools. But Jordan’s idea to relocate its city police duties to a school is unusual. Police and school officials acknowledge the idea might not work for larger communities. But they believe it could make a big difference for this town of about 5,600 people that’s about a 45 minute drive from Minneapolis. The district has about 1,800 students and all of its school buildings are on one campus.

“These attacks have been going on for years and still no one has provided any hope of relief,” Chief Bob Malz wrote in a Dec. 27 letter to school officials. “Sometimes the best answers come when we stop listening to everyone else and take it upon ourselves to make common sense decisions based on what is right for the safety of our children in our own community. … It’s time for change.”

The Jordan police force is small, with eight full-time officers, including Malz, and four part-timers. Malz said the move means the officers’ presence at the schools will increase, and he estimated at least one officer would be on the campus most of the time, cutting response time in an emergency from roughly four minutes to 30 to 60 seconds.

Officials at the middle and elementary schools cleaned out storage areas near their main entrances and installed windows that give a view of the entries. One officer will make the elementary school his home base, and two officers will split time at the middle school office. At the high school, the principal is giving up her office by the front door for the police chief. The hope is to have the officers in place by early April.

The school district is paying the estimated $20,000 for modifications that include bulletproof windows. Much of the furniture was donated.

Administrators say an overwhelming majority of feedback from parents has been positive.

“I think it’s phenomenal that they took steps to put everyone at ease after what happened with Newtown,” said Jen Sims, who has children in kindergarten and first-grade. “And it’s even better that Jordan, a small community, came up with the idea. … I’m glad to know that the school cares about student safety.”

Schoolchildren won’t be exposed to the rougher elements that can be part of a police station. People filing complaints or meeting with an officer would go to the main (and previously only) police station, where the department will still have administrative workers. Officers will conduct interrogations and meet with victims at the main office, not schools. The office is at City Hall, less than a mile from the school campus, so it’s easy for officers to go back and forth.

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said time will tell if the plan is a good idea, but it’s at least worth a try. Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said police and the district should work out when, and to what extent, officers should get involved in situations that arise at the schools.

DeCorsey said she’s already instructed teachers that police should be asked to handle a situation only if it’s serious enough to call 911.

Lacey Sand, who has a first-grader and a preschooler at Jordan Elementary School, said she and her husband support the effort.

“Before Sandy Hook, I don’t think any parent could have braced themselves for this,” she said. “After Sandy Hook, you know, it’s just something that now is a part of our lives and that we have to be prepared for. And Jordan is preparing us for that — and thank God for that.”