GFPD officers in schools provide annual report to school board

During the school year that just wrapped up, the school resource officers investigated 660 complaints in Great Falls Public Schools.

That uptick is due in large part to a zero tolerance on the increased usage of vaping among students, according to Capt. Jeff Newton of the Great Falls Police Department.

Newton presented the SRO report during Monday’s school board meeting.

Last year, the SROs investigated 572 complaints, Newton said. The all time high was 836 complaints seven years ago, he said.

GFPS and GFPD have partnered for 22 years and Newton said the program has helped solve problems at the low levels before the rise to higher levels and keeps students out of the criminal justice system.

Those 660 complaints included assaults, disorderly conducts, thefts, vandalism, narcotics related incidents, runaways, truancies, minor in possession (alcohol/tobacco) and trespasses.

Most of those complaints did not rise to the level of being assigned case numbers, Newton said.

“In most instances, criminal citations were used as a last course of action in an investigation as we attempted to intervene in partnership as educators, informal counselors and then as law enforcement officers. Each SRO uses their training and experience when exercising discretion as to the best course of action for each incident. This often times takes place with a partnership with school administration and with support from the families of the students they serve,” according to the SRO report submitted to GFPS.

This was the third year that the SROs fully implemented the juvenile diversion program, which is based on a national model working with certain juvenile offenders by offering an alternative to the court system.

During the 2018-2019 school year, 62 students entered the diversion program and 61 completed it successfully, Newton told the school board on Monday.

Of those 62 students in the program, only four reoffended, he said.

It’s a “very powerful tool,” Newton said, for keeping students who make mistakes out of the criminal justice system.

The school district contracts with the city to provide the services of four police officers during the school year. Currently, all four are detectives and two are assigned to the high schools and the other two are assigned to the middle schools as well as the 15 elementary schools.

There’s been some turnover among the SROs with Cory Reeves retiring from GFPD to serve as undersheriff at the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office. His spot was filled by Clint Houston.

Scott Bambenek has been selected to serve as an Internet Crimes Against Children detective and will be replaced by Jesse Rosteck.

Aaron Frick and Nick Taylor will remain as SROs.

Newton said the school administration is involved in the interview process for SRO positions to ensure officers are a good fit for working in the schools.

The SROs are also involved in training GFPS employees on the response to armed intruders and to date, 603 district staff have attended the training. They’ve also involved Great Falls College MSU and Benefis Health System in the training, as well as Sletten Construction since they’re working on many school projects currently.

SROs have also helped with designs for the new schools or making environmental changes to existing facilities to minimize threats, such as moving planters, shrubs, or other hiding spots, and assisted in placing security cameras.

Newton told the school board that during the last school year, SROs met with 1,747 students, totaling more than 410 hours of guidance on a variety of topics such as school, family or personal issues.

“This informal counseling time is one of the most valuable resources SRO’s can offer to students. Most of the time, these informal counseling sessions prevented an incident from escalating or referring the student to more appropriate services offered within the community,” according to the SRO report provided to the school board.

Of the 1,747 students who reached out to their SRO for guidance, only 162 students, or 9.2 percent, were cited or entered the diversion program. That’s up slightly from 152 the year prior, according to Newton’s presentation on Monday.

Responses at elementary schools were 261 and up over the previous year. Newton said suspicious calls had increased, but said that was a good thing because it meant people were paying attention and reporting anything that didn’t look right, giving GFPD a chance to investigate.

Newton said SROs also handle a number of other tasks including: work with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, crisis intervention, welfare checks, review custody paperwork and provide security at school related events, as well as answer calls during non-duty hours to assist other GFPD members.

“They’re always present, always there,” Newton said.

The SROs continue to get more involved in the process for school threats, and the district threat assessment process. He said they’re working to carry out Capt. John Schaffer’s idea of patrol offices adopting a school, where they’d eat their lunch there, write their reports parked outside a school or stop by from time to time while on patrol, to improve relationships and provide more presence.

GFPS is currently developing a smartphone app that will have school safety information and the SROs are supporting that as well as monitoring social media for any issues related to students or schools, Newton said.

“We’re safer than we have been,” he said, with trained GFPD officers and more GFPS staff trained to respond to threats.

The Great Falls SRO program has become a model nationwide that other communities look to for guidance, he said.