Four more police officers to monitor Mehlville School District elementaries

Franz believes school district should have town-hall meeting regarding school safety

By Kari Williams

The Mehlville School District will spend an additional $35,000 for police officers to monitor its elementary schools, but board member Mark Stoner said “you cannot put a price on safety.”

The Board of Education last week unanimously agreed to use four additional police officers for four hours per day at the district’s elementary schools and the John Cary Early Childhood Center — less than a month after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults died.

“We’ve seen something similar to this in Kirkwood, in our community at a meeting, so it’s a real reality here in our community,” Stoner told the board Jan. 10. “And as a board (member), I’m kind of known as the thrifty one, but this is not an area that I like to be thrifty in.”

In 2008, Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton, killed six people and injured two others at a Kirkwood City Council meeting.

Board member Ron Fedrochak said he agreed “wholeheartedly” with Stoner’s comments.

“Sandy Hook had every bit of the same security as our elementary schools,” he said. “The one thing it didn’t have was a good guy with a gun to meet the bad guy with a gun. And, unfortunately, that’s the time we live in …”

Superintendent Eric Knost asked the board for a minimum of four additional secondary police officers to monitor elementary schools. Secondary officers are off-duty officers the district hires at a rate of $25 per hour. The “important time” for elementary schools to be monitored is the morning hours when there is a great deal of traffic with bus and parent drop-offs, according to Knost.

The hours and number of officers can be revisited at any time because they are not hired on a contract, Knost said.

Mehlville currently employs 24 secondary officers, six of whom are also school resource officers, or SROs. SROs work in a district building during the school year, and are contracted in partnership with the district and the county police. Mehlville pays 75 percent of the SRO salary. Both high schools and all district middle schools have SROs. Middle school SROs also monitor elementary schools.

Fedorchak said he recalled Knost discussing the importance of student safety in regard to snow days at the superintendent’s first town-hall meeting, which Fedorchak said “really hit home” the day of the Sandy Hook shooting.

“My wife works at a school. She would have been right there in the hallway had that happened at her school. I know that, and that scared me,” he said.

Board member Rich Franz said he believes the district should have a public dialogue about school safety at a town-hall meeting.

“I like the ideas you’re talking about. I think it’s a great first step,” Franz said. “I want to see it go even further than that. Obviously, the financial aspect is something we need to talk about, but whatever we do, we owe it to these folks, the ones who are paying the bills, the ones whose kids we are trying to keep safe, to give them every opportunity to have input into this subject.”

Police Chief Tim Fitch, after the Sandy Hook shooting, suggested the possibility of arming teachers and administrators due to the significance of the first five minutes of a shooting, which Franz said he was “a little disappointed” county school administrators and superintendents did not support.

“If you’re not able to take action in the first three minutes, which, as we all know, is generally before the police show up, then people are going to die,” he said.

It took a lot of political and professional courage for Fitch to make those comments, according to Franz.

“I believe he put his job on the line, and he showed a lot of common sense in saying that we need to come up with policies in school districts all over St. Louis County that address that issue of the first three minutes,” said Franz, a retired Kirkwood police officer.

Knost said he did not want to speak for Fitch, but Fitch relayed to those who attended a Safe Schools Partnership meeting in December that “he felt he was taken out of context a little bit.”

“He was asked a number of things that he felt should be done and he was going down a list and the question kept coming back, ‘What if that can’t be done?’ … and he mentioned that as a last resort,” he said.

The Sandy Hook shooting has also caused Mehlville officials to review the utilization of the district’s buzzer systems, which now are installed at every school, according to Knost. Systems were installed at Mehlville and Oakville senior highs after the shooting.

“There will always be a conversation that happens between the person pushing the buzzer and the person letting them in,” Knost said. “… If there’s any reason to believe there’s concern … they are not to be buzzed in and I’m willing to take that heat. We’re going to err on the side of safety.”

A question Fedorchak said keeps coming up with regard to the Sandy Hook shooting is mental health.

“You could probably poll every teacher throughout their career, (and) they could probably identify the one kid that they feared would come back some day and perpetrate violence on other students or the staff,” he said, “So I just was curious have there been any discussions with any administration about how to protect teachers when they do identify that type of individual …?”

Knost said that is something district officials already practice and they know what to look for that could be a concern.

“What I want to make sure as superintendent is that there’s not a child in our school district that doesn’t have some positive connection to some adult,” he said. “I don’t care if that adult is a secretary, custodian, counselor, principal or teacher.”