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Taking the role of mentors and protectors

Written by Vicky Taylor, Public Opinion Online | Mar 7, 2016 2:02 PM

But CASD's cops also are armed and have the power to make arrests - of students and teachers

(Chambersburg) -- When trouble arises on campuses in the Chambersburg Area School District, officials no longer wait for police or state troopers to arrive.

Instead, the district has its its own police force with armed officers who have full arrest powers.

District police made 173 arrests last school year, but arresting students is not the only job of CASD's police department of three full-time police officers, a full-time security officer and about a dozen part-time security personnel.

CASD Security Chief Paul Weachter said he and his staff do much more than simply investigate crimes that occur on school property and make arrests.

The school police force - often called a security team - is on campus to protect students and staff, and ensure district schools are safe, secure places for students to learn and teachers to teach.

"It's really about safety, but it's more too," Weachter said. "We walk the halls, we build relationships with students, and we are there for them when they need us... at times we even take kids home if they miss a bus or something like that and don't have alternate transportation."

Meanwhile Weachter, his officers Mike Taylor and Gene Covington, as well as a full-time security officer, Melissa Bender, are on hand if there is serious trouble, such as a bomb threat (it has happened in the past), or a fight in the hallway, lunch room or classroom.

They investigate criminal incidents such as a theft, assault on (or threat against) another student or a teacher, sexual assault or indecent exposure incidents.

All of those things, and more, have happened in local schools in the three years the CASD Police Department has been in existence.

One thing that hasn't happened is the threat of armed intruders bent on causing harm to students at any of the district's 17 schools. While thankful for that, Weatcher said an armed, trained police force would be better prepared to deal with such an incident if it ever did happen.

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Chambersburg Area School District's , Paul Weachter, center, security chief is joined by Gene Covington, left, and Melissa Gunder on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016 at CASHS. The security officers patrol the schools in the district. (Photo: Markell DeLoatch, Public Opinion)

The role of school police

They say they have the same role as police do in any community: To serve and protect.

Weachter, Taylor and Covington - all retired Pennsylvania State Police troopers who are also fully certified law enforcement officers - agree they find their roles similar to what they used to do as state troopers in that they investigate crimes and make arrests, but very different in that they spend their days, and sometimes evenings, interacting with a lot of children and young people.

The latter is what they enjoy the most and probably find most satisfying.

They serve as role models. They develop an easy camaraderie with the students they interact with on an almost daily basis. They participate in events that promote good citizenship and civic responsibility.

"The officers do a nice job of balancing their professional responsibilities with their positions as role models," English teacher Andy Berrier said.

CASHS English teacher Emily DiZebba described the officers as part of the greater CASD community. She said their presence on campus shows they not only care about the education of the district's students, but about the safety of everyone in the district's many buildings.

School police are relatively new to the education scene. CASD went to a police department of its own in January 2013 when the district hired Weachter, then later in the year added a second officer, Carl Patla, also a retired state trooper.

Since both men had been retired for longer than three years, they had to take the Municipal Police Officers Test as a part of their re-certification process.

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Gene Covington is one of the secuirty officers at Chambersburg Area School District patrols the area around CASHS Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. The security officers patrol the schools in the district. (Photo: Markell DeLoatch, Public Opinion)

The district's solicitor had to complete extensive paperwork, which then had to be presented to the county court's president judge for review and approval. The signed paperwork verified that each officer would have arrest powers and could carry a gun on duty.

It wasn't a step that either the district or the local courts took lightly, but was something both felt was important in view of increasing violence in schools across the nation.

"Our focus is on the safety of our students, staff and faculty," Weachter said.

He said most students and their parents seem to be supportive of having armed police officers on campus, especially when the subject of the large number of school shootings over the past two decades comes up.

If a student is charged with a crime, officers usually hear from their unhappy parents, however.

"A lot of times they will say 'that's unfair,'" Weachter said.

He said when charges are filed against a student, it is totally a decision by his department.

"We took an oath to uphold the law, and if the law is broken, it's our decision to file charges," he said. "We do what we have to do."

That philosophy applies to both students and teachers or other staff that might break the law on school property, he said.

"Sometimes people get the impression we aren't going to do our duty if it comes to staff, but that's not so," he said. "If we get a complaint about a staff member and an investigation showed they broke the law, we would arrest them."

More often, though, Weachter and his officers spend their time in the schools, walking the halls, building relationships with students and being a presence at dances, ball games and other school activities.

Between times, officers investigate complaints referred to them by both staff and students. Some result in criminal charges, but more often the results of the department's investigations are turned over to district administrators or staff, who decide whether or not one warrants some kind of school disciplinary action.

"Teachers and staff still have to deal with school discipline issues, but hopefully with us to do the initial investigations, they are more free to handle their own issues," Taylor said.

Violence in schools

CASD officers investigated 279 incidents in the 2014-15 school year, about 30 less than the the prior year. They made 183 arrests last year.

So far this school year, the department has handled 140 incidents. Weachter did not have arrest figures for this at his fingertips during an interview, but those figures will be available later this summer when the Department of Education's Safe Schools report comes out.

Asked if there seems to be more violence in 21st century schools, Weachter said he wasn't sure, but he pointed to the fact that societal factors affect school violence.

"There are more students from broken homes or single parent homes today," he said. "Some of our students are full of rage because they have nothing to go home to and they bring that to school."

He said some students are caught between two cultures and feel they don't belong in either.

"Others just feel nobody loves them, and that's a shame," he said.

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Melissa Gunder is a member of the security force at Chambersburg Area School District. She was photographed at CASHS Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. The security officers patrol the schools in the district. (Photo: Markell DeLoatch, Public Opinion)

Parent, teacher reactions

Rebecca Essis, who has a 9th grader and 12th grader at CASHS, says she favors an armed police presence at the high school.

"The more, the better," she said. "When can there be enough security in this crazy, unpredictable world for our children?"

Paul Unruh, who teaches German at the high school, says having police officers on campus is reassuring.

"We as teachers know that we have help if a situation were to escalate," he said. "I certainly feel their presence has a positive effect on student behavior."

History teacher Jackson Green thinks it is unfortunate today's society makes full-time police officers a necessity in the district.

But, he says, CASD's officers are a part of the overall school community, and have integrated themselves into the community that includes both staff and students.

Lisette Jones, a CASHS teacher whose daughter is also a high school student, said she hasn't heard anything negative about school police officers from her daughter or other students.

"They are very visible at sporting events and also can be seen circling around the perimeter of the building," she said.

Weachter said that visibility isn't only a deterrent for crime on campus, but he hopes it would also deter anyone from the outside who might be considering any type of attack on local schools, especially during school hours.

"We purposely park our (marked police) cars in front of the building whenever we are at any of the district schools," he said.

He said it is his philosophy that criminals of any type or persuasion will think twice before trying to commit a crime -- or carry out an attack -- at the district's schools if they know armed police officers are in the schools.

And that is probably as important as anything else he and his officers do, Weachter said.

"We are armed and it is our job to protect our community (district students and staff)," he said. "We have to be armed to provide that safety... if we weren't we would be hampered in a life threatening situation."

Vicky Taylor, 717-262-4754

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between Public Opinion Online and WITF.

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