Fort Smith Public Schools grows police force to eight full-time officers

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 593 views 

The Fort Smith Public Schools police department is growing. Created in summer 2019 after The Arkansas Legislature enacted Act 629 allowing school districts and other entities to establish police departments, the FSPS police department has grown to eight full-time school resources officers and two part-time officers.

Three of those officers begin their employment with FSPS PD this month.

With the newly hired officers filling out the department, FSPS will have one officer at each of its four middle schools and two officers at each of the two high schools, which both now also have a ninth-grade academy. The part-time officers primarily work in the elementary schools, said Bill Hollenbeck, FSPS chief of police, who added that the middle school officers can also respond to elementary schools as well. The department also has a dispatcher, a supervisor of safety and security, and the chief of police.

In the 2018-19 school year, FSPS had seven school resources officers. Four of those — for both high schools and two of the junior highs — were provided through a partnership with FSPD that had an approximate cost to the city of Fort Smith of $120,000.

Hollenbeck said in 2019 Gov. Asa Hutchinson started a safe schools task force made up of local law enforcement, educators and community members. One of that task force’s recommendations was to allow local school districts to develop their own police agencies.

“It would assist them by not having to answer as many calls from schools and have local school partnerships with local enforcement,” Hollenbeck said.

The FSPS Vision 2023 Strategic Planning team marked additional SROs as a high priority need in 2017, but “citing recruitment and retention issues, the leadership of the Fort Smith Police Department said that the FSPD would not expand the number of officers at FSPS schools through the SRO program,” then Superintendent Dr. Doug Brubaker said. Additional SROs were not part of the 2018 Millage Proposal, he added. However, through juggling other expenses, the district found a way to hire three officers for the 2018-19 school year – for the other two junior highs and one to serve as the SRO for the elementary schools. The district required that Certified School Security Officers candidates also be licensed law enforcement officers, and the officers were overseen by the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office.

Those three officers transitioned to the district’s new police department for the 2019-20 school year so as to no longer be under the supervision of the sheriff’s office because of Act 629. At the time, there was no additional cost to the district since the officers were already employed by the district, Hollenbeck said at the time.

“We’ve had a great working relationship with the Fort Smith Police Department for … over 10 years now,” Hollenbeck said.

Because of a staffing shortage at the FSPD slowly started to pull officers out of the schools. FSPS stepped up and hired three police officers and started the department, Hollenbeck said. During the 2020-21 school year, the FSPS PD employed three full-time school resource officers and two part-time school resource officers.

“The staffing shortage with local law enforcement has continued, and this year, we found out that they were no longer able to support the school resource officer program by partnering with us inside the schools,” Hollenbeck said. “The (district) understood there was a void in the schools and stepped up to make sure we had a safe and secure learning environment.”

Hollenbeck said since the department began, officers have had the opportunity to engage with the students on a personal level. The school resource officers take a multi-level approach to providing service inside the school, he said. Safety, ensuring the safety of the students, staff and visitors to the schools, is the  most important aspect, but mentoring the students is also a  priority goal, he said.

“As a positive role model, we have the ability to engage our students on a daily basis with positive contact. The more we engage with our students, the more comfortable they are and the more they become our partners just like the community. When they feel comfortable coming to us, we can resolve issues that may develop, and that allows our officers to have communication with students, which helps deter any type of criminal activity or violence that might occur,” Hollenbeck said.

The key goal for the officers is to keep students in school, he said, noting that at times local law enforcement’s mission is not exactly conducive to what the school’s mission is.

“We want our students to stay in school. The longer they are in school, the higher probability they are going to succeed in life. Our officers are trained in de-escalation (tactics), crisis intervention, and mental health first aid. We want to deescalate a situation before it turns into an arrest. It’s a proven statistic that once a student is arrested, they are 30% more likely to reoffend. That is what we want to avoid. We want our students graduating and becoming good citizens and employees and future business owners and business leaders,” Hollenbeck said.

Officers are at the schools throughout the school day to contend with fire alarms, bomb threats and events regarding parental situations involving custody disputes and more, he said. Officers also work to keep special school events, such as sporting events and graduation, secure and safe for all those attending.

“The Fort Smith Police Department has done a tremendous service for FSPS for many years, and they still do. … We work closely with them,” Hollenbeck said. “We’re a force multiplier for them. By having a school resource officer in the schools to work these problems for the local police department the community gets to enjoy that beat officer staying on his beat, on the street answering calls and providing service to the community rather than be tied up in the schools.”

The officer also becomes a trusted adult students can turn to with a need, he added. The FSPS police department would like to develop a student working group where students act like an advisory committee to the school resources officers to give their buy in and tell what they want, what they expect and what type of educational programs the officers can provide, Hollenbeck said, noting some education programs could be on drugs, suicide prevention, internet safety, bullying, etc. The department also wants to form a parent advisory committee so leaders can learn what parents expect from officers inside the schools to keep their child safe.

The security staff has a stand-alone salary schedule, but it is basically tied first to a first-year teacher, said Martin Mahan, deputy superintendent.

“We found that the first-year teacher salary was competitive to law-enforcement. And so we utilized that and came up with a stand-alone salary schedule for our security team, which includes our officers, our supervisors and our directors,” Mahan said.

The starting salary for a school resource officer is $38,500. The starting salary for a supervisor of security is $40,810, and the starting salary for a chief of police for the district is $45,430. Steps are provided in the salary schedule for years of experience. The salary for the three full-time officers employed in the 2020-21 school year had salaries ranging from $48,390 to $56,960, indicating 12-21 years’ experience as a police officer. The salary contracts for the 2021-22 school year are not yet available on the district’s website.

Funding for the department comes from Enhanced Student Achievement (ESA) funds, which are given to the district based on its free and reduced lunch rates, targeted at providing additional support for the whole child, including meeting social and emotional needs, counseling, mentoring and providing safe learning environments, Mahan said.

The district also uses some Elementary and Secondary Educational Relief Funds (ESER) funds, which is a source of finance the district will have for three years, tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

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