by Rich Rosentreter
As the new school year begins there will be a new presence in the hallways – a member of the Tupper Lake Police Department to ensure the safety of the building’s occupants. Now local police officers Tom Fee and Geoff Carmichael will be armed and patrolling the L.P. Quinn Elementary School and the middle/high school and their duties will include more than just protecting.
Tupper Lake Village Police Chief Eric Proulx sat down with the Free Press a day after school started for the year to discuss how having a resource officer came about, the requirements for the position and the duties involved – along with other aspects of the post – one that is appearing throughout the country in response to the plague of violence in schools.
The move toward having a resource officer in Tupper Lake was initiated when Chief Proulx said he was approached by School District Superintendent Seth McGowan to discuss the options to place a resource “safety” officer in the school.
“We started looking at the different scenarios and the way other school districts do it with retired law enforcement that are sponsored by the county, by the school district hiring their own safety officers, armed or unarmed, and the possibility of putting a full-time police officer in the school,” Proulx said.
Chief Proulx said research was conducted last year by both the department and school, and McGowan was in favor of the option of putting a police officer in the school. According to Proulx, he was limited budget-wise as any potential officer placed in the school had to be a seasoned professional – such as those in the local police department.
“I didn’t have the money to hire two cops because it has to be an experienced officer. You can’t take someone new out of the academy and place them as a resource officer,” Proulx said. “They just don’t have the proper training for a potential active shooter.”
Discussion went into numbers and Proulx said he proposed that the school district fund the two officers.
“We went from there,” he said.
Proulx said the school conducted a survey of faculty, and although he did not see the survey results, they came back highly in favor of having a resource officer in the school, in favor of it being a police officer and in favor of the individuals being from the Tupper Lake Police Department.
“The general consensus was that they wanted somebody from Tupper Lake that knows the kids and the kids know and whom they feel comfortable with,” Proulx said. “They didn’t want to have just some retired cop from this area or anyone else that the kids didn’t know.”
The school wanted two officers, one in the elementary school and the other in the middle high school. Proulx said then he had to propose it to the village board where those in favor were not unanimous as some were concerned about how the village would pay for the resource officer. He said he presented a cost that was broken down as far as salary, schooling, uniforms and retirement costs.
“We came up with a salary of what the cost was and came up with a number,” Proulx said, adding that it was eventually decided to put the issue up for vote in the school budget to deflect the cost from the village.
“There was overwhelming support. The positions were added to the school budget vote and passed,” Proulx said. “Then it became a matter of logistics with me figuring out how I was going to put two officers in the school.”
Although an issue arose from the police department losing an officer in the spring, Proulx said he managed to move ahead with the plan.
Once the plan to bring on two resource officers for the school was approved by voters, the selection and hiring process started.
Local officer and former police chief Tom Fee was the first selected to fit the role – and he had overwhelming support from the school and the required credentials, according to Proulx.
“Everybody loves Tom. He’s worked at the school. The kids know him, he worked as a substitute teacher, he has the credentials for teaching obviously, he was a chief here, he knows the law. He’s a perfect fit and the school was happy about it. So I selected him first,” Proulx said.
According to Proulx, Geoff Carmichael then expressed interest in the second position, and after some discussion and negotiations, he was given the second resource officer position.
“He is also a sergeant here and also retired,” Proulx said.
Both Fee and Carmichael were on patrol in the schools on the first day, Proulx said, although there still needs to be some planning as to finalizing Carmichael’s schedule.
The chief said that the police presence in the schools was accepted well by the school community.
“It was very well received,” he said.
More than patrolling
Although patrolling the school is a primary function of the resource officer, it will not be the only one.
Proulx said he had spoken to Fee, who communicated to the school’s faculty and suggested some additional lessons be given by the officers.
One example of the lessons that officer Fee will provide is giving instruction such as what a person should do during a traffic stop so it doesn’t go bad, Proulx said, adding that is a great topic that many people do not learn.
“He will teach other law enforcement topics that are approved by the school, just like any other curriculum,” Proulx said.
Both Fee and Carmichael are certified as general topic instructors, which is one of the requirements of the resource officer job, Proulx explained. Other job requirements are “a minimum of five years experience, it is preferred that they have field training officer’s position, which is technically a first-line supervisory position, certified as a general topics instructor, have a working knowledge of juvenile law, and we’re all learning that because the governor just changed the age of a juvenile from 16 to 17.”
Proulx said that there is also a community-relations aspect to the job, and as chief he has always worked to improve how the community’s youth viewed the police force, adding that an officer has been visiting the school for a number of years every morning.
“There used to be a huge disconnect with the youth. They used to always bad mouth the police, but now the students seem to know them, they know the guys,” he said.
Sign of the times
Having a resource officer in Tupper Lake schools is just a sign of the times, Proulx said, and he is committed to making sure the people in the schools are safe.
“The dynamic of the world has changed. Our country has changed with ‘How do we protect our schools,’” he said. “One of my big things is how will I keep our kids safe. (A shooting) could happen here and I want to make sure everyone is safe, that’s been one of my goals ever since becoming chief.
Proulx said although Tupper Lake has a low crime rate, it is still important to stay on guard – and having a police officer in each school is a preventive measure – but there are no guarantees there will never be an incident – or it will stop someone from causing harm.
“My approach is that I am not saying you’re not going to have some kind of incident in our school. It doesn’t have to be an active shooter. It could be somebody coming in and committing an assault. This position is not just me saying I want to stop an intruder with an assault rifle, the position is more than that,” Proulx said. “If that does happen, my school resource officer is not a one-hundred percent guarantee that somebody is not going to get hurt or killed either. It’s more preventative of us minimizing the trauma if it does happen. To try to prevent or minimize, that is the goal.”
“There’s a lot more to it than he’s just there to prevent an intruder. We’re doing instruction. Also part of their duty is to assess the schools for safety. They’re going to play a big role helping with the school’s safety plan. The officers will provide input with daily safety,” he added. “They’re going to be active all day long. They’ll be active with faculty meetings. They’ll be in meetings and informed about students who might be having issues. We want them to be involved with the daily life of the school district.”
According to Proulx, officer Fee even said he doesn’t want the position to be just sit in a room staring at the wall all day. Therefore, they will have teaching duties along with keeping a watchful eye on activities on school property.
“The officers may approach people on school grounds during the day. It might be somebody walking their dog on school grounds. They will approach and inquire: ‘Who are you and why are you here?’ They may not be doing anything illegal, but they are on school grounds,” he said.
Proulx reminded everyone that they resource officers are police officers and will be in full uniform.
“They come into work as if they were going on duty, it’s no different,” he said, adding that some people inquired about the schedules of the officers – but declined to provide those details for what he said are obvious reasons.
“The thought is that there is probably a resource officer on duty during school hours. The main thing is being in the schools when school is in session,” he said.
Proulx added that there have been discussions about having the resource officers at big extra-curricular activities and during parent-teacher conferences, which he said is a prime time for a problem to arise.
“Not that there’s ever been a problem, but from a law enforcement perspective when analyzing a school’s life, that is a perfect time for there to be a confrontation such as a parent assaulting a teacher who they are mad at. We will work on things as the school year progresses. In today’s climate those types of things are taken more seriously. We’re not singling out anything,” he said. “We look at what has taken place in our country, what the different events that have happened and what could happen. This is the route we decided to go. This year there will be a learning curve because it’s new to me and it’s new to the school. We’re going to work with the school district on what we need to do and what isn’t being done. At the end of the school year we’ll ask what did we waste our time on and what can we improve.
Feedback and training
One thing Chief Proulx stressed was the need to hear from the community as to how the resource officer initiative is working as it progresses into the future – and he wants to hear from more than just the faculty or administration.
“I’ll be looking for feedback from faculty, from all the faculty, and even the staff, the cafeteria workers, the custodians. I want to hear about the program and what people in the schools think,” he said.
“The main thing to remember about this is that it is the village police department, it is owned by the village taxpayers – even though they are school taxes, this is providing public safety to the village of Tupper Lake, which includes the school district. This position is not gong to take away from the level of service by the department to the village.”
“If you have car accident you will still get an officer on the scene,” he said. “You won’t have the excuse that they are tied up at the school. If our school resource officer has a sick day, somebody will be at the school.”
Proulx said having his staff trained for any potential situation in one of the schools is of primary importance.
“I am trying to keep my officers trained for any event. My guys can handle other threats but need to have training to be ready just in case,” he said, adding that people may not realize the number of guns that enter school grounds – especially during hunting season.
“During hunting season, the number of guns that come onto school property are quite a bit when parents come to drop their kids off at school. You’d never be able to stop that in this community, or any hunting community. People think we’ll be able to see the gums people have when on school grounds but that is not the case,” he said, adding that no laws are being broken when these guns are in the vehicles of parents – unless they have a concealed handgun. “There’s a lot to think about, but I think we are moving in the right direction. I was very glad that Seth approached me because it was one of those things that I was thinking about quite frequently, not so much the resource officer aspect, but how are we going to handle our school system if there’s an active shooter. It’s part of my job. It’s great how it worked out because before I was just having conversations with other colleagues in other departments. Trying to get training here in the middle of nowhere is hard. But I will keep working to ensure the safety of the Tupper Lake community – especially those within the walls of the local schools – the children of the community.
And having a school resource officer is a necessity in today’s world, Proulx said. “It’s a little more peace of mind for me and Seth. It’s a level of security that wasn’t there before.”