Lack of dollars remains the challenge.
The threats made online and via social media by some young adults that were directed at various schools in the region on the night of Thursday, Dec. 19 – threats of shootings and bombings that eventually included Crookston schools and spurred a police presence at all five Crookston schools the next day – had Crookston Police Chief Tim Motherway longing Monday evening for the days when a "school resource officer" worked in the local schools.
Back in 2001, the CPD landed a federal COPS grant. For three years funds from the grant made it possible for the city and school district to split the costs for an SRO, a position that was mostly assigned to Crookston High School but also visited other local schools. When the grant expired in 2004, Motherway recalled at Monday's city Ways & Means Committee meeting, the city continued to put up funds to maintain the position, but budget reductions in the school district eventually resulted in the district not allocating funds to cover its share of the SRO's salary and benefits. Motherway estimated that each entity paid around $35,000 a year for the position.
Since the SRO went away, the police chief has been seeking the position’s return, but Motherway said his last four COPS grant applications have been denied. He suspects that COPS dollars are funneling primarily into cities with major crime issues. "Thankfully, we don't fit that criteria," he said. "But it would be nice if they'd spread the money around a little."
City Administrator Tony Chladek said Monday that he'd spoken with Crookston School District Superintenent Chris Bates to gauge his interest in potentially partnering with the city once again to bring the SRO back. Chladek said he left the conversation with the impression that Bates would welcome an SRO, but that he and the school board have many budget priorities that are likely higher on the list.
Bates, in a phone interview with the Times on Tuesday, said that there's "not a superintendent alive" who would say no to placing a police officer in the schools if it could guarantee that a tragedy like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut in mid-December wouldn't happen.
But Bates said there are no such guarantees. He also noted that the previous SRO spent most of his/her time at the high school, while the Newtown, Conn. shootings killed kindergartners and kindergarten staff. "Understandably, the SRO would be at the high school most of the time, where most issues happen," Bates said. "But it doesn't help if a police liaison officer is at the high school and something happens at Washington School, or Highland."
The budget is always a concern, he added, "But not more than safety. It becomes a question of what do you get for your money?"
Bates said he was impressed on Dec. 20 and he continues to be impressed with the local police's role with the local schools. On that half-day of school prior to the Christmas break, he said the officer posted at Washington School wore a Santa hat, and the two officers that went to CHS mingled with students.
"We asked them to be a presence, but to be unobtrusive," Bates said. "All reports I got were outstanding. The officers being there showed the kids, 'We’re here, you're safe, but we're not going to blow this out of proportion.' To know the Crookston Police can give that kind of service as needed is reassuring."
Motherway said he instructs the two officers on patrol during the day each day to be seen at the local schools in the morning, at lunch and after school.
Also, he said that since the Dec. 19-20 activity he's met with local school principals and staff at the schools to discuss their safety and security concerns, and best practices to implement if an incident arises. Local authorities are also increasing their focus on "active shooter" training, Motherway added.
Motherway said he saw "a lot of value" in the SRO position when it existed in Crookston, and he would "love the opportunity" to re-establish the position, even though he realizes one officer can't be in more than one place at one time.
"Maybe after they get done bickering about gun control, some funding will break loose for more officers in the schools," the chief said. "It's something I'm going to keep working for."