The Select Board heard a comprehensive presentation on the role of the school resource officer in supporting students at its meeting Thursday night.
Joined by members of the School Department and Hopkinton Youth & Family Services, Hopkinton Police Department Chief Joseph Bennett explained the history of the program and its importance in connecting students with resources. It originated as the D.A.R.E. drug use prevention program in the mid-1980s and later evolved into school resource officer program first supported by federal grant funding during the Clinton administration.
“The function of [the SRO program] is to kind of bridge and provide a safe environment for the students,” Bennett explained. It also provides “a face in uniform” with whom young people can feel comfortable.
An example of this was when Bennett described SRO Matthew Santoro interacting with middle school students on the Town Common during the Early Release Hangout on Oct. 20.
Santoro is an HPD officer who has gone through specialized training, Bennett added. Some of the basic courses revolve around mentoring, understanding the teen brain, social media use and developing successful relationships with diverse student populations. Advanced training also is offered over the summer.
School superintendent Carol Cavanaugh said that previously there had been two SROs. Santoro is the lone SRO due to staffing shortages, a problem also encountered in other districts in the state. She stressed that SROs “are not disciplinarians” and are involved in restorative justice practices.
She noted that children under the age of 18 make up nearly 30% of Hopkinton’s population. This means that a student can have a mentoring relationship with an SRO for up to 13 years.
School principals described the positive relationships Santoro has built with students through high-fives, fist bumps and conversations. He also helps during challenging situations when a law enforcement perspective is needed.
In one situation, Lauren Dubeau, the preschool and Marathon principal, described how Santoro stayed several hours after his shift to help a student in distress get help.
Added Dubeau: “I don’t know what the outcome would have been without Matt being there.”
Bennett said the SRO position is a perfect way “to humanize the uniform” and increase trust. Students can then feel safe talking about deeper issues.
High school principal Evan Bishop noted that families have complimented the SRO program in helping them find resources including counseling.
Bennett noted that Santoro “is available to me 24/7” as well as to school principals in an emergency.
Santoro explained that each day is different. He starts at the high school and visits other schools as often as possible. He also participates in meetings and provides information to students and staff.
Dawn Alcott, the director of Youth & Family Services, explained that the relationship between the HPD and her department is strong. She has relied on the SROs for more than four years for advice for families because of their knowledge of the students’ situations.
“I appreciate that a lot of people really go above and beyond,” said Select Board chair Muriel Kramer. “I’ve seen a lot of really personalized and focused attention for families and kids.”
Bennett also announced the creation of a regional clinician co-response program with Sherborn and Holliston. Its start is “imminent.”
Member Irfan Nasrullah asked if a school resource officer would be helpful in an active shooter situation, such as the one experienced in Maine the previous day. Bennett responded that the officers are highly trained in how to respond in situations like this.
In his role, Santoro also serves as the juvenile court officer. As part of restorative justice practices, he tries to prevent students from having criminal records. He advises families about what to expect at court proceedings.
All members complimented the HPD on the recent Early Release Hangout success on Oct. 20.
Member Mary Jo LaFreniere complimented the officers for the way they connected with the students.
Said LaFreniere: “The kids were having a good time, and that interaction is priceless.”