By Samantha Phillips
With the former Mathews School District resource officer facing charges ranging from theft to drug possession, some township and school officials seem at a loss when confronted about potential discipline policies.
The question gets to the very heart of intergovernmental relationships: Who supervises a police officer assigned to a school? A superintendent, or a principal who answers to a superintendent? A police chief, or a township administrator who supervises the police chief?
So, who was the direct supervisor for Vienna officer Michael Sheehy?
In late January, with Sheehy on leave from his school post, The Vindicator was told by township officials he had been verbally placed on administrative leave. Asked if a verbal order is typical and what the policy is for placing an officer on leave, Trustee Phil Pegg replied: “There is no policy.”
Township and police officials said they followed procedure, but couldn’t give details of what happened after the theft allegations because of pending Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation probes.
On Feb. 1, a Trumbull County grand jury indicted Sheehy. Seven counts in the indictment revolve around incidents at the police department in January, including taking two AR-15 assault rifles and for removing $700 from a police vehicle. The eighth count alleges Sheehy trespassed on Mathews High School property Dec. 16, 2018, to commit theft.
Earlier in January, school resource-officer controversy arose in Warren when an officer gave a parking ticket to a school principal who parked in a handicap space.
Warren policeman Adam Chinchic was escorted out of the building after he wrote a ticket for Jefferson K-8 principal Carrie Boyer. Warren Superintendent Steve Chiaro apologized to police and acknowledged he believes “the situation could have been handled by utilizing a chain of command.”
Most Mahoning Valley school districts have resource officers. A check by The Vindicator found varying models that help to determine the chain of command if something goes awry.
Mathews schools Superintendent Russell McQuaide declined to comment for this story, and Vienna Police Chief Bob Ludt could not be reached Friday.
But other school officials and police chiefs reported no previous issues with any security or resource officer, and all their officers at the schools are contracted by their local police department, so they have cleared background checks including from BCI and the FBI.
Each school district also reported extensive interviewing processes with school, police officials and in some cases municipal officials before an officer is hired to work in a building, and each district reported regular safety meetings to monitor the officers’ performance and give the chance for administrators to address issues.
Despite the recent two negative incidents involving resource officers and school administrations, officials interviewed reported their officers bring positive results and strengthen the bond between the community and police.
School resource officers are security officers that partner with guidance counselors oftentimes to improve student grades and attendance. They also observe student behavior to try to prevent problems before they start.
Sometimes they teach lessons on safety and drug- abuse resistance in schools.
The Boardman school district has had SROs since 2003, and now has four. They are supervised by Mike Sweeney, the head of Youth and Family Services at the school district.
In all those years, no problems have been reported, but if there were, Boardman schools Superintendent Tim Saxton said the schools and the police department would work together.
“Ideally it’s a partnership, a shared responsibility,” he said. “The SRO is still contracted through us, but the ultimate supervisor is the Boardman Police Department. We would work with them, we would discuss the situation with that person first to see if we can get it corrected, and then we would work with the building principal and the supervisor, Sweeney.”
The salaries of the SROs are partially paid for by a federal Community Oriented Policing Services grant.
“I couldn’t be more proud or satisfied with the SROs we have in our buildings,” Saxton said. “You can invest in video cameras but when you are looking at the issue of security in schools, your best investment is in people.”
“They build relationships with our kids. If you’re going to have any type of a school threat, there is some type of ripple in the water so to speak, and when we have SROs building relationships with kids, teaching kids, going into classes, they will sense the ripples before it happens. They’re protectors. They’re advocates,” Saxton said.
Hubbard City schools hired its first SRO, Sgt. Bob Thompson, last October. In addition to being a certified resource officer, he’s also a certified active shooter response training instructor.
Hubbard Police Chief James Taafe said there have been zero issues, but if there were a problem with a SRO, then administrators pass it along to the superintendent, who then will contact him.
In Hubbard, the SRO works for the city throughout the school year. Taafe explained the SRO trains and renews SRO certification in the summer and then works as a patrolman until school resumes.
The school district and the police department share the cost for the police officer.
“The goal of the program is to get our school officers firmly ingrained in the fabrics of the schools,” Taafe said. “They are encouraged to go to all the homecoming events, social and sporting events so they are a familiar face, someone kids are comfortable approaching and speaking to, someone that is there to help.”
The Youngstown City School District employs 70 security officers who are contracted from the Youngstown Police Department and the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office. The school district has employed security officers for years, and some are certified resource officers, said Denise Dick, city schools spokeswoman.
William Morvay, the district’s chief of security, is direct supervisor for the officers. If there is misconduct by an officer, he could notify the internal affairs division of the police department or sheriff’s office, which could conduct an investigation.
“If there was some issue that came up regarding their performance/behavior while working in or for the schools, the matter would be investigated by us and any discipline doled out accordingly,” Dick said.
The Lowellville School District does not employ school resource or Drug Abuse Resistance Education officers. The K-12 school district, however, has staffed armed security guards for many years. Lowellville, Poland, Struthers and New Middletown police officers serve the school district at $25 an hour.
Lowellville schools Superintendent Geno Thomas said the school administrators work closely with Lowellville Police Chief Rick Alli to monitor the performance of the officers.
“[They] are accountable by the same standards and ethics of laws they would follow in their departments, which are synonymous or similar around the region,” Thomas said. “If we had to deal with any type of disciplinary action, we would get the police involved as well. We don’t fly solo.”
Alli said the police department rotates police officers because it allows them to become familiar with the layout of the building in case of emergency.
In Warren, the six SROs report to the building principal at their assigned location as well as their commanding officer within the Warren Police Department. In a collaborative effort, one officer is assigned to each pre-K-8 school and two are assigned to Warren G. Harding High School. The program is paid for through the district’s general fund.
“The role/responsibility of the SRO is to ensure the ongoing safety, security and well-being of all students, staff and guests in WCS while creating and fostering positive relationships between the Warren Police Department and WCS Community,” said spokeswoman Virgina Shank.
Each school district noted it is grateful for a strong partnership between the police and the schools.
“The relationships they develop with students and with school personnel are invaluable,” Youngstown schools’ Dick explained. “Like school teachers and administrators, the officers can tell if a student is behaving differently and may need help. ... The school district benefits from having the officers in our schools as they both help deter and prevent crime.”
In Hubbard, Taafe emphasized the SRO program builds a positive school climate where everyone feels safe and supports students so they are able to succeed.
Lowellville K-12 Principal Dennis Hynes said having security officers also enables students to become comfortable with local police, both inside and outside the school environment.
“It’s been a very beneficial, positive experience for the school as well as the community,” Hynes said.