Should Middlesex Middle School have a school resource officer? The Darien Police Department thinks so.

Members of the department, including Chief Ray Osborne, gave a presentation on the potential benefits of placing a school resource officer, or SRO, at Middlesex, at the Board of Education meeting Tuesday night. While school safety has been widely discussed on a national level, Osborne explained that the role of the SRO goes way beyond just having an armed officer on school grounds.

Osborne was joined by Detective James Palmieri, formerly the SRO at Darien High School and now a detective in the youth division, and Bryan Wallman, the current SRO at DHS. “I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback about both these guys,” Osborne said, adding that the SRO program at DHS has been, “a real home run for us.”

Osborne did explain that it took a number of years for the program to be adopted at DHS, as there was initial resistance to placing an officer in the building. “Police and youth interaction was always perceived as negative. It was ‘All cops do is break up parties, bust kids chops,’ but we are changing that,” Osborne said. The program at DHS has been a two-way street, as police officers have gained knowledge and understanding about the needs of students in the high school, while the officer works to improve the culture that might lead students toward “at risk behaviors.”

The SRO wears a number of hats at DHS. They play the role of a teacher by giving guest lectures in classes throughout the day. Wallman said he is in health classes weekly talking about underage drinking and drug use, as well as the way the law can impact students. Wallman also said he has given guest lectures in political science and law classes at DHS. The topics in those classes include search and seizure laws as well as school security and safety. “It can be broad, but it’s a positive having me in those classrooms,” Wallman said.

The SRO also plays the role of a counselor. “I get monthly reports about the amount of contacts the officers have during the course of a day, or week, or month. A large number of students talk to them about things going on in their lives. Police officer can offer a different perspective,” Osborne said.

“Kids attach themselves to people. Some to a teacher, some to a guidance counselor. But there was another group of kids that attached themselves to my role. These kids were looking for a responsible adult to give them good advice,” said Palmieri of his time as SRO at DHS. Palmieri there were kids who used teachers in this role, others who used counselors, but there was definitely a population of students who leaned on the SRO as a source of advice and help.

“That need is something that’s hard to identify off the bat, but I can tell you that need was there at the high school,” Palmieri said.

And now, the population at Middlesex, a middle school for sixth, seventh and eighth grades, seems to be in need.

“Just recently, at Middlesex, within the last few weeks, our youth officers were up there three times in one day to handle three incident. Perhaps if an SRO was there that could have been handled a bit differently,” said Osborne, who also noted the incident involving a homeless being arrested on school grounds that happened that very day.

“Times are changing,” said Osborne, adding that young people are “getting older faster.” The behaviors that were identified as reason for an SRO to be placed at DHS are showing up in younger students..

Osborne said a lot of those behaviors are starting to show up at the middle school, including underage drinking and drug use, sending inappropriate photos via text and email, and bullying.

“At the six, seven, and eighth grade level, we’re running into these kids at parties. And they have no idea what they’re facing and what the law is. Guidance from guys like (Palmieri and Wallman) is very beneficial,” Osborne said, adding that placing an SRO in the building makes it possible to handle some of these issues before they get out of control.

An SRO does not change any disciplinary procedures. “We are just another set of eyes and ears,” Osborne said. While there is no specific training required for the officers, the National Association of School Resource Officers offers and recommends a 40-hour course, which both Palmieri and Wallman completed. In addition, they are trained in crisis management and de-escalation techniques to help address the needs of students with behavioral or emotional issues. All police officers in Darien are also technically the first responders to a medical emergency, and as such are trained as EMTs.

While security is certainly a part of what an SRO does, as they are an armed police officer in the building, the role encompasses more than that. “We focus on big picture. A healthy environment for the school. There is a security aspect to it no doubt. There was an example today at the middle school. He is an armed police officer in case of an emergency, but there is much more to the role,” Osborne said when asked about the security aspect of the position by board member Jill McCammon.

Deb Ritchie asked Wallman to take the board through the typical day for the SRO. Wallman said he arrives at school early enough to be there when students start to arrive. Some students “pop in and talk about how the weekend went,” Wallman said, as he has an office in the guidance department. From there, Wallman will go to classes and give guest lectures, and some teachers have “given me the green light to pop in any time,” Wallman said. Wallman also said he’ll be in the cafeteria during lunch waves and hang out with students, but for the most part, his day is spent speaking with kids who come by looking to talk. Student privacy is, of course, respected, as officers will often have information that teachers or administrators don’t, such as a domestic violence incident occurring over the weekend at the home of a student. In those cases, the SRO might simply check in with the student to see how they are doing, but not necessarily directly involve a counselor immediately.

The superintendent, Dr. Dan Brenner, had nothing but positive remarks to say about the SRO at DHS.

“The relationship has been pretty remarkable. We’ve been fortunate to have them,” Brenner said, adding that he would expect a similar relationship between the Middlesex administration and the SRO, although oversight of the officer ultimately belongs to the DPD. Principal Shelley Somers said that she and the rest of the MMS administration support the addition of the SRO, adding, “Part of providing a safe environment is having people that students can contact, they can relate to, that can be proactive, that can be part of the community.” Somers also said she envisioned the SRO being part of the efforts to improve and implement more social and emotional learning initiatives at Middlesex.

The adding of an SRO would go beyond just the Board of Education. This would be a collaborative discussion with other town boards and the Darien police.