Editorial: Local schools feel pressure to up security in wake of school shootings

  • Pulse survivor India Godman, left, hugs Wendy Garrity at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., during an open house as parents and students returned to the school for the first time since a shooting took place at the high school. AP FILE PHOTO

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

If it’s true “you get what you pay for,” then it’s also true you have to pay for what you want to get.

In Petersham’s case, that might mean boosting the police department budget by $45,000 to bolster protection for schools — and the town generally — in these uncertain times.

Police Chief Dana Cooley recently cited the fatal Parkland high school shooting in Florida, while making a case to hire an extra full-time officer here.

At his annual budget review with the Selectboard and Finance Committee, Cooley said his department has sacrificed to keep its budget level-funded for the past six years, and implied that the time has come, for many reasons, to boost spending. This year, he is including a $44,772 budget request to hire a full-time officer to provide greater coverage to the town.

The chief says that since the Florida shooting, which saw 17 students and staff killed by a mentally troubled teen with a semi-automatic assault-style rifle, he has had numerous inquiries as to how he will protect the community in the event of a similar mass shooting.

There are 120 students and staff at Petersham Center School and more than 20 at the private, nonprofit Montessori School, which is on the same grounds as the public school.

Cooley, the only full-time officer on duty in the daytime, made his case succinctly: “I can’t give the town adequate protection by myself, and am asking for an extra full-time officer.”

“If we had an active shooter situation … the best scenario … I’m the only one going through that door — back-up would be 10 minutes away.”

A second full-time daytime officer would not just double the fire power at possible shooting incidents, but more routinely, the department could increase regular patrols in town, at the schools, but also at other areas and businesses — and could be in two places at once. Cooley envisions the officer functioning as a patrol officer, school resource officer, D.A.R.E. officer and providing flexibility for court appearances and overtime duties.

The chief, who visits Petersham Center School every day, said though Montessori is a private school, he is responsible for protecting everyone there as well. He has been contacted by both schools since the Parkland shooting.

“People want to know how I’m going to protect their children,” he said.

The selectmen and Finance Committee said they understand the reasoning behind his request but have deferred action, for now. They noted the chief has also sought increases in other parts of the budget request, such as overtime. Some of the budget increase, $27,602, is to close a coverage gap weekend mornings and Sundays nights. His overall spending would grow from $206,975 to $296,955, with only a portion of that attributable to a second day-time officer and potential protection for schools.

Yet, the chief isn’t without general support from the Selectboard. “You have done an excellent job of staying within your budget for several years. We have to have a strong department. They (officers) get good leadership from you,” Selectboard Chairman Nancy Allen noted.

The chief’s reply, a subtle defense of his spending request: “What you put into your department is what you get out of it.” And he’s right. But so were the selectmen who have asked him to “sharpen his pencil” as his request tacks on roughly 70 cents to the tax rate.

As is always the case in small towns strapped for cash and competing demands on their limited money, the town’s leaders, and eventually its taxpayers, will have to balance those competing interests and ask if beefed-up police protection in the daytime, especially around schools, is worth an extra $45,000 a year.

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