News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News

September 13, 2013

On-site school officers helping to ease stress

TERRE HAUTE — Placing a police officer in each Vigo County school has had a huge impact already this school year, not only on school safety, and has improved student and adult behavior, while quickly resolving a few unpleasant situations.

At the School Safety Commission meeting Thursday afternoon in the Vigo County School Corp. office, Terre Haute Police Chief John Plasse reported that he has heard no complaints about having officers stationed inside the schools.

“I think the student contact with the officers every day is very positive,” Plasse said. “It’s good for kids to have everyday contact, rather than just seeing an officer show up for a bad situation at home.”

He said the interactions will have long-term benefits for the community, as young people grow up trusting police officers in a school environment that has seen a decline in bullying.

A new anti-bullying law has gone into effect statewide, requiring that all students be educated on bullying issues.

THPD Sgt. Jason Brentlinger said he has ordered new literature that can be shared with schools throughout the county as part of that educational effort to go along with bike safety and other programs.

Franklin Fennell, the school system’s director of facilities, support and transportation, said bullying has become a catchword that is being overused to describe any negative comments or behavior. There is actually less bullying going on, he said, but the educational staff is hearing more things described as bullying.

Brentlinger confirmed that reports of child-vs.-child bullying have declined in the juvenile department at THPD.

“I really have seen a reduction in the amount of reports coming in,” he said.

One problem issue that has remained, however, is motorists disregarding school bus stop arms, Fennell said.

That issue was addressed a couple of years ago when the Indiana State Police did a program in which troopers patrolled during bus routes and ticketed several people who passed stopped buses loading or offloading students.

“A lot of it happens on U.S. 40 east of town where it is a four-lane highway,” said Sgt. Joe Watts of the Indiana State Police. “Many people don’t know that even if the bus is going in the opposite direction, the oncoming traffic must stop when a stop arm is out.”

Watts said he ticketed several people himself, but when asked, most people said they knew it was the law to stop, but they were in a hurry.

He agreed to check into whether another patrol effort could be undertaken to reduce the stop arm violations.

Fennell said all school buses now have signs on board saying that a person must have permission to get on a bus, citing a state law. A bus driver had an incident in which a parent got on a bus and would not leave when asked, he said, noting that many school districts around the state now commonly post a sign warning people that they are trespassing if they enter a bus without permission.

Another concern raised by William Mercier, director of Public Safety at Indiana State University, has been recent reportings by college students of strangers offering rides to students. Two of those instances were recently reported as attempted abductions, and the campus community has been made aware to watch out for “stranger danger.”

Usually by this time of the school year, Chief Don Lark said that the West Terre Haute Police Department has received numerous complaints about child custody issues at school.

But Lark said his office has not received a single call so far from a parent angry that a child has been released from school to a noncustodial adult. He credited that to a procedural adjustment, making a change in student records about specifically who is permitted to pick up a student.

Ray Azar, the school district’s director of student services, said that in the first days of classes this fall, school protection officers handled two incidents that could have gotten out of control.

In one case, a noncustodial parent went to a school to see a child, and the officer was able to de-escalate the situation and get the noncustodial parent to realize he could not return to the school without permission to see the child.

In another case, a parent angry that his child had missed the school bus showed up at school driving recklessly. The officer got involved, and the parent was arrested.

“I know there are other times when just the presence of the officer has de-escalated a situation,” Azar said.

Watts related a similar incident in which an alert relative of a school employee in Rosedale noticed a strange vehicle driving erratically near an elementary. A report was made to police, who investigated and found that the person was wanted on warrants and was driving a truck that had been stolen the night before.

Lark said he has also encouraged his officers to get in the habit of writing their police reports while they are parked at the local school buildings. Before, he said, officers usually would go back to the police station to fill out paperwork. Now they can do that in their vehicles, so they are visible outside the schools, and close by if needed.

The police agencies and the school district also are looking for times when teacher training can be conducted on active shooters in the building.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.

 

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