By Lee Tugas
Do village police need a special law to intervene at Whitehall Central School? Town Supervisor George Armstrong still has doubts.
Yet ironically, it is Armstrong who is the point-man arranging a summit meeting between school officials and area police to discuss a law that would beef up village police power at the school.
A proposed municipal agreement between town and village would permit village police to intervene at school in non-emergency cases.
Such a law would grant village police full “jurisdiction” and liability protection in all situations at Whitehall Central School.
Armstrong still believes that it would be best if village police limited their activity at the school to emergency responses. But he has agreed to be the point-man to arrange the meeting to arrive at some kind of “understanding” about village police presence at Whitehall Central School.
Armstrong is skeptical as ever
Personally, Armstrong is as skeptical as ever about the wisdom of granting village police authority to handle non-emergency situations at either the elementary or the high school. And two recent events at the school have not changed his opinion all that much.
On Dec. 5, village police were the first to arrive at the high school for an emergency 8:03 a.m. lock-down. School officials then believed that a suspended student, who had illegally entered the school, might provoke a serious incident.
On Dec. 14, state and village police announced an on-going investigation of a “sexting” case involving more than 50 students, primarily from Whitehall, who have placed explicit photos of teenage girls on the Internet.
Neither of these events has entirely convinced Armstrong that village police need to be on school grounds to conduct drug searches, criminal investigations or to mediate disputes.
“In the emergency lock down case, the village police were properly dispatched,” Armstrong said. Village police have full legal right and liability protection on school grounds, if they are dispatched by Washington County Dispatch, Armstrong said.
Armstrong argued that the “sexting” investigation was a “village investigation, not a school investigation.” That means that village police and state police had conducted the investigation within Whitehall village, not at Whitehall High School, he said.
“The sexting case is a separate issue. It does not prove the case for more village policemen at school,” Armstrong said.
Village Police Detective Frank Hunt has said school officials were not aware of the “sexting” investigation until they were informed by state and village police, roughly in October.
Armstrong listed a number of reasons why he believes village police should not be at the school in non-emergency cases. When it comes to drug searches, “They don’t have the dogs. They don’t have the training to do drug searches,” he said.
Buying drug-searching dogs and completing police training, moreover, will cost money, and all to perform operations already done by sheriff’s deputies or state police, Armstrong said.
When it comes to searching the school for criminal activity, Armstrong maintained that village police do not have the investigation experience state police have, particularly its Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI.)
Discipline a school matter.
Should village police act as mediators, then, at the school? Armstrong addressed that issue as well. The town supervisor believes that school officials should properly be the ones to handle disciplinary matters. If, he said, the school needs to strengthen its disciplinary-mediation arm, “They need to look at hiring a resource person and at closing their doors.”
He was particularly critical of how easy it is for anyone to enter the high school. In addition to the front entrance, Armstrong said persons can enter the high school building via an unlocked garage door to the janitor’s room and by a back door next to the superintendent’s office.
Armstrong even offered a specific remedy for one door, the one by the superintendent’s office.
“Whitehall residents use that door to pay their taxes. They could pay their taxes here at the town hall, if that would limit access to the school.”
How strong is support for new law?
Armstrong insists that support amongst public officials for a “municipal agreement” between town and village, which would materially boost village police power at WHCS, is not that strong.
“Why would you ram a law down the school’s throat? The school has not asked for it. The state police haven’t asked for it. The sheriff’s are cool to the idea,” Armstrong said.
Nevertheless, Armstrong finds himself in the ironic position of being the man calling the state police at Granville Substation G, Whitehall School Superintendent Elizabeth LeGault, Sheriff Jeff Murphy, Mayor Peter Telisky and Village Police Chief Matt Dickinson for an up-coming meeting tentatively set for mid-January or later.
Armstrong said that although he does not favor “a municipal agreement,” he does support an “understanding” between school officials and area police that would allow village police more influence on school grounds.
“The sight of village police in the halls might indeed have a calming effect,” Armstrong said.
But whatever understanding is reached at the proposed meeting, “It may not turn out to be a municipal agreement,” Armstrong said.