Six years ago, 20 children and six educators lost their lives during a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, a school in Newport CT. Fast forward to February 2018 and The New York Times reported at least 239 school shootings occurred nationwide since that day in 2012.
“Thirty years ago, it would never happen in Manchester,” said Student Resource Officer Benton Brown. Now, he believes it’s only a matter of time before something happens that’s too close for comfort.
Safe schools is the number one priority for the three newly hired SROs. They are Brown, who will be at Westwood Middle School, Andy Neesmith, who will be at Westwood Elementary and Jason Fowler, who will be at College Street Elementary School.
Each of them work for Manchester Police Department and have at least 10 years of experience in law enforcement. Fowler was previously an SRO in Warren County for three years.
An SRO is more than a first line of defense if an active shooter situation does occur – they are a resource to the teachers and a friend to the students.
“I’ve got a 5-year-old little boy and he kind of inspired me to do it,” Neesmith said. “I’m a big kid. I love kids. With him going into the school system, it’s just kind of made me think about the safety of other people’s children and what they’re going through. Try to bridge that gap between the police officers and the kids.
“There’s a lot of times we’re doing calls with domestics and stuff that like, and other calls that kids are like, sitting there and saying they want to run from the police or mom and daddy tell them that they’re going to have the police take them away and stuff like that.
“So we just kind of want to bridge that gap. But first and foremost with us, as SROs, we just want to be the security for these kids at the schools so they can get the education and everything they deserve to have and not have to worry about outside interference,” he concluded.
Brown and Fowler both backed up his statements with their own experiences of being feared by children.
From his time as an SRO in Warren County, Fowler claimed he was able to change a few minds and had some of the students coming to him if they had problems.
They will also be able to assist teachers in education the students on law enforcement. Fowler is one of Manchester’s two trained Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officer. Currently, Brown and Neesmith will act as a resource to the other DARE officers and do not yet have DARE training in their futures.
Manchester Police Chief Mark Yother explained training them for DARE wasn’t out of the question, but it isn’t the focus of the SRO program’s pilot year.
Each of them accepted the jobs because they wanted to keep the school safe. Brown was the first in line for it. Neesmith followed after his son’s class surprised him with “Get well” cards after his surgery.
“I melted,” he said. “I looked at my wife and said ‘I know what I wanted to do.’”
Fowler wanted to get back into the schools as well and, having done it before, he was an obvious candidate.
The three officers will be working Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. They will be on duty whenever teachers are working and can be used to staff afterschool activities and sporting events. They will not be regular patrol officers except for extreme situations or where staffing demands require it, such as during Bonnaroo.
They make between $40,000 and $41,000 a year.
The police department is still continuing to patrol the schools and walk through them to support the SROs.
If the unthinkable does occur in Manchester City Schools, the three are ready.
“I’m going toward the threat,” Brown said. “My wife and I have had this conversation. What happens if someone comes in the school and starts shooting? It’s not the teachers’ job to defend the student from bullets. It would be great, don’t get me wrong, but they’re teachers. They’re not trained like law enforcement.
“If I hear it, I’m going to it. That’s my job. It’s my job to protect the 426 kids that I have in my building and if I don’t go home and I’ve saved 426 lives, that’s part of it. I’ve accepted that and I will do it.”
Neesmith echoed his statement and added their first objective is the safety of the kids.
“You don’t want your teachers to be the one to have to step out in front of somebody like that to try and protect kids, that’s our job. That’s what we’re there for,” Neesmith said.
The entire active city police force can get to the schools in 3-5 minutes and in as little as less than 2 minutes if they’re leaving from the station. Yother said he has his officers practice their response time to ensure they can respond in a timely manner.
Brown added that school shootings are one thing that “the public gets months and years to tear apart what you have to do in seconds.”
The officers are trained to handle any situation that may occur in the school. All of the went through 40 hours of training in Alabama through the National Association of School Resource Officers. They are required to go through an additional 16 hours of training each year.
Three less officers?
Brown, Fowler and Neesmith were all patrol officers for MPD before they accepted the position of SROs. The police department is currently down three officers, but Yother explained the department re-arranged schedules so the same number of cops are on the road at all times.
The MPD is hiring three officers to replace them. The hiring process began this week.
The SROs are servicing as in-service officers until the city and the police department reach a Memorandum of Understanding.