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In Wake Of Sandy Hook, KCK Public Schools Roll Out District Police

Sam Zeff

Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, a lot has changed in the way police respond to a school shooter.

Squads no longer wait for SWAT teams to arrive. Now, they rush in to try and stop the shooter as quickly as possible.

In the past two years there has also been a push to put more police in schools to lessen response time even further, and many districts have created their own police departments. The newest one in the region is in Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools.

The National Association of School Resource Officers says school district departments are the fastest growing segment of law enforcement. In 2008, which are the latest figures available from the U.S. Justice Department, there were almost 5,000 officers employed by school districts around the country. That figure is higher today.

Right now, Blue Springs is the only district in Missouri with its own police department. In fact, the district added six officers as a result of Sandy Hook for a total of 13. Shawnee Mission schools in Johnson County, Kan., has a small force of seven officers.

The Los Angeles Unified School District in California has the largest department in the country with 340 officers.

But while putting armed, sworn police officers in more schools sounds good to many, serious problems have cropped up around the country.

In Texas, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report, police officers in schools cite 100,000 students a year for misdemeanors. Offenses that used to be handled with a trip to the principal’s office now become criminal matters with trips to court.

Just a few months ago, district police officers in the Maize School District in suburban Wichita, Kan., issued $50 tickets to some students for using foul language.

“I’m not sure that adding additional SROs really addresses the threat other than  making people feel secure because there’s more people in uniforms walking around,” says Professor John Rury from the University of Kansas School of Education.

Despite these issues, this year the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools decided to create its own police department. 

The district is sending its current security force to the state law enforcement training academy and will eventually have a 30 officer force.

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR
Kansas City, Kansas School District Police Officer D.J. Howell

One of those is Officer D.J. Howell who is assigned to Argentine Middle School where last year he was a security guard.

“When you’re talking about just the relationship with the kids, I mean, if anything it’s gotten better because I’ve been here going on my second year now,” he said.

Argentine Principal Jereme Brueggemann says the students see Howell and the other officers as friends not foes.

“They see him as a support for them and I think that’s important for them to know that he’s there to help and they don’t see him as a threat or a negative,” says Brueggemann.

“This is a higher level of training and expectations to provide a higher level of safety with what’s happening in schools,” says district CFO Dr. Kelli Mather.

Mather says there’s been no uptick in threats, crimes or suspensions. Still, she says, the district decided it was time to upgrade.

“I think this is a solution wanting to stay a solution. Just being proactive. Being reactive never solves anything,” she says.

Credit Kansas City, KS School District

The first thing the district did was hire away the police chief from Kansas City, Kan.

Rick Armstrong spent 35 years in the KCK police department. He was on the SWAT team for three years, was shot in the line of duty and almost beaten to death in a fight with a fleeing burglar.

But he knows this new department has a different mission.

“We recognize up front we’re not going to measure a success point or a measurement of value by the number of arrests we make. Maybe to the counter. Maybe it’s the lack of arrests that we have to make,” he says.

Tall and a marathon runner Armstrong still looks like he could take down a door.

But while he looks like a cop, he talks like a teacher.

“If you change a child, what does that mean? What if you change just one child, you keep one child safe, you’re able to keep one child on track? It’s unlimited. The potential is just unlimited.”

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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