CHATHAM — On a recent morning, Sgt. Bill Massey stood outside Chatham Elementary School, greeting children as they stepped off the bus. Most gave him friendly fist-bumps, and one young girl flung her arms around him.
Not a bad way to start the work day.
Sgt. Massey is already a familiar face for students at Chatham Elementary and Monomoy Regional Middle School, but soon they’ll be seeing him just about every day. Massey has been appointed the first full-time School Resource Officer (SRO) in the Chatham Police Department’s history.
The schools have been part of his beat almost since he joined the Chatham police in 2005; before that, Massey was the DARE officer in Southampton, Mass. The job has changed significantly since the days of Drug Abuse Resistance Education, he said.
“DARE was a really well-intended program,” Massey said. And while its success in reducing drug use is debatable, it showed clearly that having police officers in the schools was an effective way of helping curb risky behavior among students. Chatham’s longtime DARE officer, the late Sgt. Joseph Fennell, helped build connections with many generations of youngsters. They learned from an early age that police officers can be trusted resources and friends.
And when it comes to helping kids understand what police officers do, that face-to-face interaction helps counter “the unbelievable influence of social media and the internet,” Massey said.
SROs attend a 40-hour block of national training to obtain certification by the National Association of School Resource Officers. It is a very comprehensive curriculum designed to maximize the effectiveness of police officers who are engaged in school-based policing, Massey said. The Harwich Police Department provides SROs at Monomoy High School, Harwich Elementary and Cape Tech, and together, SROs meet regularly as part of a Cape and Islands network.
“We share information on trends that we’re seeing,” he said. By sharing intelligence and best practices, SROs can more effectively meet emerging threats to kids, like the prevalence of e-cigarettes or “vaping” in the middle schools. Massey said SROs will also play a key role in explaining the state’s changing drug laws. Though marijuana use has been decriminalized, it’s not always legal, he said.
With school violence now happening with alarming regularity, SROs are clearly seen as a safeguard against school shootings and other tragedies. Simply having a police cruiser outside a school can be a deterrent to violence – but that’s only a portion of the job, Massey said.
“It’s more than just a security guard,” he said. Officers assigned to the schools are educational partners and mentors. And they help school staff keep an eye out for kids who are at risk of being marginalized or acting out. Once a child is identified, school officials can arrange for the proper support.
“Our small community does have a lot of resources available to it, though we could always do more,” Massey said.
Police Chief Mark Pawlina said Massey will continue his regular patrol work during the summer months, when the department’s call volume is up. But he’ll also keep in touch with the schools to support summer school programs and other activities there. Massey will be taking part in training staff in crisis protocols as soon as they return in the fall.
Pawlina said he identified the need for a full-time SRO several years ago, but the time was not right from a budget standpoint. The uptick in school violence brought the idea to the forefront again.
“As more and more such tragedies were occurring in that time, I said, this is it, we have to act now,” the chief said. He thanked the board of selectmen and Town Manager Jill Goldsmith for supporting the position in the fiscal 2019 budget, which voters approved earlier this month.
The change means that the department will be short a patrol supervisor for one shift, “but the priorities have to be the priorities,” Pawlina said. “I just couldn’t be happier. To me, it’s just peace of mind and a little bit of insurance.”
Massey said he’s thinking of creating a junior law enforcement club to make connections with more students. The club would be a way to share accurate information about police and the job they do, something the annual citizens’ police academy does for grown-ups. The more alternatives kids have for their free time, the better, he said.
“Discretionary time, if there’s too much time and if it’s the wrong kid, they’ll find a way to fill it,” he said.
Massey’s ability to connect with young people is easy to see, and is probably related to the fact that he has two children of his own in Chatham Elementary School. Mostly they like having Dad around, but Massey admits that he got an eye-roll from his daughter when he approached her in the cafeteria and reminded her to finish her lunch.
“Most of the time, they think it’s great,” he said with a laugh. “Most of the time.”
Email Alan Pollock at alan @capecodchronicle.com