News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 17, 2013

Law enforcement officers helping students feel secure in Vigo schools

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — On Thursday morning, as Terre Haute police officer Don Toney prepared to do a foot patrol at Sugar Grove Elementary, even he had to be buzzed in by front office staff.

He also had to sign in at the office.

But staff were glad to see him. “Good morning, Mr. Toney,” said School Principal Gail Artis. “Mr. Toney is a friend of Sugar Grove.”

For several years, THPD patrol officers have done walk-throughs at elementary schools inside city limits, but those patrols have been stepped up, and become more formal, in the wake of the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Now, dayshift patrol officers are assigned specific schools to visit, said Toney, who’s been a police officer for about two years. On Thursday, he went to Sugar Grove and St. Patrick’s School.

As he conducted his walk-through, he made sure exterior doors were locked and nothing looked out of place from a security standpoint.

At one point, Toney went outside to check whether a door was locked — which it was — and Artis let him back in.

“All exterior doors are locked at all times,” Artis said. At the start and end of the day, staff members will hold the doors open to let students enter and exit.

Artis has noticed the stepped up efforts of city police. In the past, patrol officers might be in the building twice a week. Now, it’s at least once a day.

“Children recognize them and parents appreciate it,” Artis said. “I think it’s wonderful for many reasons. I want children to realize that law enforcement is here to protect them, to befriend them, to care about them and to be sure that their school is a safe place in which to learn.”

Students also are developing a positive relationship with the uniformed officers, she said.

Ray Azar, director of Student Services for the Vigo County School Corp., said that the presence of a police officer “always has a calming effect on everyone,” and it also strengthens parents’ and students’ confidence about a school’s safety.

After completing his walk-through, Toney drove to St. Patrick’s. Again, he was buzzed in by staff in the school office, where he went to sign in.

“Hey, wait a second. He looks familiar,” said one of the students.

Toney walked the floors, checked exterior doors and then checked out at the front office. “Everything looks good,” he told an office staff member.

As Toney entered his squad car, St. Patrick’s Principal Amy McClain, who was on her way into school, caught up with him. “Thank you for coming here today,” she said. She asked if his job duties have increased because of stepped up school security efforts.

Toney responded, “Just making our presence known is the big thing.”

School security is not a new concern for him. His wife, mom and sister-in-law all are teachers in Vigo County schools. In fact, his wife teaches at Sugar Grove.

Part of Toney’s training at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy included active-shooter situations and school security.

In addition to doing walking rounds each day, at varying times, he’ll also drive by the schools at the start of the day, as kids are entering the buildings, to make sure everything is okay.

At other times, when Toney has a police report to write, he’ll often park his squad car at a school to complete the report — yet another deterrent for anyone who might have the wrong intentions. Other police officers have been asked to do the same.

“That’s an awesome idea and a great deterrent,” McClain said.

Soon, city police, in cooperation with the school district, will take school security to a new level.

By April 1, the police department plans to have off-duty police officers, with full arrest powers, stationed inside all Terre Haute city schools, according to a plan announced Monday.

The annual cost is $353,000, with the school district paying about half at $176,000. The School Board approved the plan Monday, and city police will pay the rest, largely funded this year through a seized asset fund.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.