Constables bring extra level of safety to Dover High

 

From left, are constables Vincent Green, Charles Woodard and Barry Jones at Dover High School. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — In 2016, Capital School District decided to hire three armed constables to be posted at Dover High School. Delaware has had a program allowing student resource officers — sworn police officers posted in schools — for about the last 20 years. The addition of armed constables at the individual districts’ discretion was introduced about five years ago. The decision wasn’t without controversy.

Barry Jones, one of Dover High’s new constables, said his son happened to be one of the most outspoken critics of the move before he was hired. A senior and the class president last year, Mr. Jones’ son even addressed the school board about his concerns when the measure was being considered.

“I was working at Kent General Hospital as a constable when I applied here,” said Mr. Jones. “My son was 100 percent against the idea. His concern was that there were too many unarmed people being shot in our country and that bringing guns into the schools wasn’t the answer.”

For the three constables, Mr. Jones, Vincent Green and Charles Woodard (all retired policemen), their mission is a deeply personal one.

“I have a six-year-old in school, a high-schooler and a daughter in college — keeping these kids safe is something we take very seriously,” said Mr. Green.

However, they understand the trepidation students and parents faced in making the decision.

“Initially when we came, a lot of people were just thinking about the guns themselves,” said Mr. Woodard. “But since we’ve gotten here, the students, staff and some of the parents have gotten to know us as individuals. I think they’re starting to see what was intended; that the guns aren’t here for the students or staff, they’re here to protect them from someone trying to come into the building to harm them. Of course, it’s everyone’s hope that we’ll never have to pull them out though.”

The Dover High constables and student resource officer, Cpl. Demetrius Stevenson, all agree that students and staff have embraced the idea of their presence in the school.

“We’ve gotten a lot of support from principal Dr. Courtney Voshell and superintendent Dr. Dan Shelton, and the students see us as part of the faculty now,” said Mr. Green. “We’ve been approached by a number of teachers that tell us they feel safer just because we’re in the building.”

However, not everyone is convinced. Mr. Jones, who still has a daughter attending Dover High, says his now-graduated son still disagrees with the idea of armed officers in the school.

“He’s still against it — he’s softened up a bit on me personally though,” Mr. Jones said with a laugh. “My response to him though is that we have the training to accomplish this, and we’re here to protect the students. It’s the conditions of the outside world that we’re preparing for.”

Armed personnel in schools

The gun control debate raging in the country has reached a fever pitch in the wake of mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, last month that left 17 dead. With several gun control bills currently being discussed in Legislative Hall, many parents in the state want to understand what’s being done to protect their children in school.

Delaware Emergency Management Agency says their primary program to this end is the Comprehensive School Safety Program. The five-year-old program was created after the passage of the Omnibus School Safety Act passed during the Markell administration and is currently led by director Evelyn Brown and deputy director Willie Patrick who regularly tour the state’s districts to assist in the refinement of their various emergency plans.

“These are all-hazard plans, covering everything from aircraft crashes to tsunamis,” said Mr. Patrick. “They have plans and best practices laid out in advance. We also work with districts and the schools to develop their partnerships with local first responders and law enforcement to integrate them into their crisis teams.”

The armed personnel in schools play a large role in the emergency plans, Mr. Patrick noted. According to the Department of Education, there are currently 55 sworn police officers serving as school resource officers statewide. These officers work within 13 different police departments. That sum doesn’t include supervisors or the youth aide detectives who have offices in the different agencies but only respond to schools when called or occasionally to perform a routine visit.

As for constables, there are currently 22 working in four different school districts. The state’s schools are considered “gun-free zones” so even with a concealed carry permit, no one other than student resource officers, constables or active law enforcement personnel are allowed to be armed on any campuses.

DEMA director A.J. Schall notes that the officers’ duties extend far beyond just “guarding the front door.”

“These constables and officers are in the schools forming relationships with students and teachers,” he said. “They have training to identify threats and proactively reduce risks in the schools. Because they’re at this post every day, the have an understanding of the school and its population that an officer just patrolling couldn’t have. That way, they’ll be much more suited to spot something that looks out of place or they can tell if a certain student is acting erratic.”

As part of the Comprehensive School Safety Program, schools in the state are required to perform two “lock-down” drills per year and a tabletop exercise that sketches out the school’s response to various crisis situations and reinforces administrators’ connections with local first responders.

Mr. Schall said that without getting into the tactical breakdown of an active shooter response, the plans place a high priority on getting notification to the school’s crisis team and 911 immediately. For the student and teacher response, the plan mirrors the national model called “Run Hide Fight,” which is:

• Run if you can.

• If you’re stuck, hide.

•If the shooter finds you, then fight — with whatever you can.

“Teachers are the true first responders because they’re the ones already there, but with the student resource officers or a constable, there is a one man army to back them up if theres an incident at the school,” said Mr. Schall.

It’s crucial that the plans are subject to frequent re-examination though, Mr. Schall says.

“A plan is a living, breathing document,” he said. “One of the goals this year, in the off-season, is to pull the plan back to examine it for the opportunity for updates and modify based on what we’ve learned from other incidents that may have happened around the country. We’re constantly working with districts to ensure that their plans are not collecting dust on the shelf.”

Putting it into practice

Dover High’s constables say an ordinary day starts when they arrive around 6:45 a.m. to prepare for the large influx of staff and students.

“We have close to 1,800 students and most of the staff arriving at 7 a.m. — they all come into the building over the course of about 12 minutes,” said Mr. Woodard.

During this process, constables are stationed at entry points to ensure everyone arrives safely and there are no suspicious vehicles or anything else out of the ordinary.

“We’re also looking at body language and facial expressions,” Mr. Woodard said. “We greet everyone and we try to get on a first name basis with as many kids as possible. If you know them and they know you, you may be able to tell if someone had a rough night and sort of make a mental note of it.”

Mr. Woodard feels that the role of “unofficial counselor” is perhaps the least understood part of his position.

“Occasionally we’ll be called in to support a teacher in a disciplinary issue,” he said. “Sometimes, we might know specifically what’s bothering a student. We’re even able to sometimes mediate a situation on the spot and get the student back to class, other times we’ll have to get the student to the principal. We’re also working with the guidance counselors sharing information that may be important.”

After students arrive and head to their first period classes, the three constables begin patrolling the school.

“We’re checking lockers, securing the floors, looking for any suspicious packages, checking bathrooms — we’re on general patrol unless we get called to a classroom,” said Mr. Green. “Then, during lunch, two of us are posted in the cafeteria and the other is floating. We’re checking exits at that point too, just to make sure no one is getting let in.”

For equipment, each constable is equipped with a duty belt, .40 caliber sidearm, badge, extra magazines and ammunition, a radio, flashlight and handcuffs. They also have easy access to several ballistic vests if needed and an all-terrain vehicle to patrol the school grounds.

Training and “refresher courses” are also a frequent occurrence for the constables. Dover High’s constables estimate they’ve had a combined 300 hours worth of training over the past two years — including an active shooter specific course last summer. All three are required to pass three firearm qualification tests per year, said Mr. Jones.

Since being hired on, the constables feel they’ve added an important layer of security at Dover High. Not only are they able to support other staff members and keep student safe in the school, they feel their presence alone, has a deterrence effect on anyone considering harming a student. Also, if the worst were to happen, they say, they’re ready.

“As a parent, when I see the news of these mass shootings at schools, it just puts me in awe because I can’t imagine what these families must go through,” said Mr. Green. “It hits home for us, but it’s a learning experience too. We go back to the story and see what went down and ask ourselves what we can learn from it. We hope, god forbid, that it never happens here, but we’re prepared if it does. If it happens, we’re ready and trained to deal with the situation.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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