Last night, with a vote of 5-0, the Capital School Board voted to hire three armed constables at Dover High School. Using a model currently in use by Indian River School District, the board discussed the issue with members of the community as well as high school and district staff. All supported the measure with one exception: the Senior Class President. The pool of applicants would come from the Delaware State Police. Because of insurance and pension issues, the pool was limited. All were in agreement that hiring out-of-state would not be a wise decision.
One of the staff from the high school gave public comment indicating the current non-armed security guard company they utilize is highly ineffective and said it is like “throwing $40.000 off the roof”. He cited the bomb threat incident a few months ago that led to a student’s arrest. But he also indicated there was a huge fight on the football field as students were already trying to deal with the bomb threat. He indicated there are gangs at Dover High School. He said they are a small group of students who cause a lot of the problems.
The Senior Class President said many students were concerned with going from unarmed to armed persons in the school. He felt like it was a drastic leap to go from one situation to what he felt was extreme. He urged the board to find some middle ground. Many students, he stated, felt it wasn’t fair to have this in their school when they weren’t the ones causing the problems.
In an attempt to allay the class president’s fears concerning the presence of armed constables at the high school, board member Ralph Taylor, also a retired Dover Police Officer of 20 years, said a gun is a very last resort. He said the last thing an officer wants to do is use a gun, but it could mean a matter of many lives in a bad situation. Board member Sean Christiansen said he reached out to different stakeholders in the Indian River School District including their own constables, parents, teachers, and students to get their thoughts on the matter. All felt it improved school climate and led students to a feeling of safety within the district. Dover High School Principal Courtney Voshell had a survey where parents could rate how safe they felt their children were at Dover H.S. and over 93% felt the school was not safe the way the current safety program was set up.
The school will also retain their School Resource Officer from the Dover Police and the constables will not have arrest authority. They will be used to diffuse situations, but as it was explained, they will not punish students if they don’t have a bathroom pass. The contract will cost the district an additional $75,000 out of their budget which will be used from carryover funds from fiscal year 2016. Going forward, this would be a permanent part of the district budget. The constables will be employees of the district. They will receive professional development on all areas of school safety. The details are not flush yet, but there was discussion if the training would come from the current Indian River Constables or the Dover Police Department.
I asked the board how the recently passed Senate Bill 207, which would not mandate schools to call the police every time a physical assault occurs unless it is considered to be a crime, could affect this decision from a financial perspective. The bill, not yet signed by Delaware Governor Jack Markell, would give schools and parents discretion to contact law enforcement in those events. Superintendent Dr. Dan Shelton said the current school resource officer currently deals with crimes in the school so it would not change things. Certain school crimes such as drugs or weapons, would still result in an arrest of a student. Shelton said another bill (the restorative justice bill) didn’t pass but if it does in the future it would give the district additional funding to deal with school climate issues. I also asked if the constables would receive special education training for students with disabilities. Shelton said they would, but not on an individual basis.
The board was so impressed with the Senior Class President, board member John Martin invited him back up to the podium to discuss student concerns in greater detail. Board member Christiansen invited him to come to every single board meeting. It was also conveyed they wanted him to be a part of the hiring committee for the constables and Christiansen told Voshell he expected him to be excused from class those days. Voshell jokingly answered that would be a summer school excuse which drew laughter from the audience.
The special board meeting, held just for the purpose of this decision, also had another activity. Elected board member Dr. Chanda Jackson was sworn in by board President Matthew Lindell.
While I wrote some very negative things about the district almost half an hour prior to this board meeting yesterday, most of which concerned their Strategic Plan and joining the BRINC Consortium, I felt this board meeting was a very honest and open discussion about a very serious issue. The district was honest about the issues happening at Dover High and didn’t try to whitewash the gang activity. After the meeting, I happened to be speaking to a board member from another district that deals with similar issues as Dover H.S. but they said their district would never openly talk about these kinds of issues in their schools. We both agreed that issues can’t be dealt with until they are acknowledged. So I salute the Capital School District and Board for tackling this decision.