Police grapple with school needs, limited numbers
The St. Joseph School District lacks enough school resource officers to cover all buildings at all operational hours, reflecting a broader supply issue.
Were all needs to be met, there would be 10 law sworn law enforcement assigned to protect local public schools: nine police officers, and one sheriff’s deputy.
Because of a contract last revised in 2017, the St. Joseph School District is responsible for 50% of the St. Joseph Police Department’s school resource officer costs. The funding provision, however, does not help the underlying lack of manpower available to the department. Local law enforcement leaders do not believe increasing funding would provide a short-term solution for the issue.
There are six officers to cover Benton, Central and Lafayette high schools, and to float between the remaining buildings. The deputy covers Bessie Ellison Elementary, as it is located just outside city limits. County taxpayers cover 100% of the sheriff’s services.
The absence of three resource officers will be made whole once the police department can recruit more, Interim Chief David Hart said. It is built into the department’s plan once sufficient staffing occurs.
“Right now, there’s a shortage of police officers nationally,” Hart said. “So I just can’t go out there and wave a magic wand around and hire 20 officers. It takes time and, unfortunately, this is not a problem that came up overnight and it’s not a problem that’s going to go away overnight.”
Competitiveness in pay is a key factor. To gain ground, the department must recruit new officers, and retain the ones it has, compensating them commensurate with their experience. Entry-level pay for an officer freshly commissioned from an academy is $49,000. Each of the SJPD-assigned officers on duty now has years of experience, and they earn an average salary of about $67,000.
The district pays just under $311,250 per year of total resource officer costs, according to documents prepared for the Board of Education. That covers things like cell phones and uniform allowances. The fact such district payments are not made for the sheriff’s deputy is a consequence of county policy. Only Bessie Ellison can be covered in that way, as only that school is outside city limits.
“When Buchanan County ran the use tax several years ago, part of that tax was designated for (school resource officers) in Buchanan County schools,” said Sheriff Bill Puett. “So we have always maintained that commitment.”
Shannon Nolte, who administers school district security, including school resource officers, said he is confident six cops are enough. A $600,000 grant from the State of Missouri to harden district buildings against intrusion also strengthens school safety, he said. Yet, there are obvious utilities in having nine police available.
“There’s actions, fights, assaults and things like that that may happen in the school where a (school resource officer) needs to be there,” Nolte said. “All of those things provide a layer of security and safety, and the more layers we have, the better. It’s a comfort level, but it’s more than that. In order to maximize learning, which is what we’re here to do, we have to have these safety measures in place.”
Marcus Clem can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowClem