HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — At one time, as many as 12 school resource officers roamed the hallways and campuses of the Harrisburg School District. The program, which began in 2000 as a partnership between the schools and the city police department, ended abruptly in 2009 due to a lack of funding.
“It should have never went away,” said Captain Gabriel Olivera, who once served as a school resource officer. “We were able to build a very successful program. We built so many partnerships with so many people. We built those partnerships with the kids.”
On Wednesday evening, city leaders proposed a reboot of the program in the form of a one-year pilot program, beginning with two officers being assigned strictly to the district. According to Mayor Eric Papenfuse, the city would pick up the tab for the pilot program, which it plans to pay for through federal community block grant dollars. If there is proven success, a widened program and partnership between the city and the school district would be explored.
“It is incredibly important that our youth see police officers not as the enemy but as mentors and role models and leaders,” Papenfuse said.
Among members of the public offering comments at the meeting was Kevin Dolphin. His Breaking The Chainz, Inc. works to mentor troubled youth and already has a presence in Harrisburg schools. Dolphin says he is not against uniformed police officers patrolling the schools, but he has concerns that the current attitude toward police within certain socioeconomic groups could set the program up for failure.
“I used to be one of those troubled youth,” Dolphin said, “so working with them I understand that we sometimes have a problem with authoritative figures. But once we understand that Chief Carter and Captain Olivera aren’t here to hurt us, they’re here to help us. But the youth don’t understand that right now.”
While Dolphin has urged police to consider a partnership with groups like his when outlining the full proposal, several parents of Harrisburg students had other concerns. Sara Marotto says her child has been bullied at school, and conflicts between students don’t always end when the school day does. She says a recent situation at school resulted in another student coming to her neighborhood later that day to attack her child. She believes students will be encouraged to share information with officers, but might be doing so with a false sense of protection.
“You might have the ones who are getting bullied going in and talking to the resource officers, trying to figure this out,” Marotto said. “And then when they (the bully) gets disciplined for it, oh well. This person told. Let’s retaliate after school. The police aren’t always going to be there. The resource officers aren’t going to be there after school.”
According to Olivera, two senior officers from the existing police force will be carefully selected to train and serve as SROs. Qualifying factors would include those officers having children of their own or previous experience working with children and teens. It has not been determined if the officers will be assigned to a single school or multiple campuses during the pilot program.
“What’s really great about this is that we’re actually able to increase the size of our police force overall, and gain a presence in the schools,” added Papenfuse, who says City Council will vote on a funding proposal for the program within the next two weeks. “By using federal grant dollars, we can add two school resource officers and hire another two officers to the ranks. The SROs will be in the schools, and then in summer, they’ll be out on the streets where the kids will know their names.”
The budgetary proposal for the SRO pilot program will include the salaries of the two officers, according to Papenfuse. If approved, a full description of the program will be formed through collaboration between the city and the Harrisburg School District.