Under pressure: Falmouth school resource officer focuses on safety, making connections

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Last of three stories.

Being a school resource officer comes with a heavy set of responsibilities, the first of which is to keep everyone in the building safe.

But the job is also so much more than that.

School resource officers are also expected to be “a role-model, an empathizer, a counselor, a social worker, a mentor, a supporter, an encourager, a disciplinarian (and) an adviser,” according to Officer Rob Susi, who serves all three Falmouth schools.

Susi has been the school resource officer for the Falmouth School Department for more than 15 years.

He took the job, he said, because he loves working with kids, and because he realizes that one of the best ways to “keep kids on track” is by ensuring they have the opportunity to build “positive relationships with trusted adults.”

Like most school resource officers across Maine, Susi can be seen interacting with students in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of environments, whether it’s in the hallways, the cafeteria, at a sporting event or at a concert.

Connecting with students through social media platforms is also a huge part of how Susi keeps tabs on them and helps to build rapport and a strong bond with students at each of the schools.

In fact, at a public forum on school safety in early March, Susi said he’s often the first one to hear about an issue because students will either come to him in person or alert him through social media.

While creating a relationship of trust with students is among the most crucial parts of Susi’s job, he said, “my most important duty at the school is keeping everyone safe.”

To that end, Susi works closely with the Falmouth Police Department, the School Department and school administration to make sure all three schools in town have the best security measures and plans in place.

No drills

But the one thing the Falmouth schools have not yet done is hold a lock-down drill that includes students.

Susi said the hope is to hold such a drill within the next week or so, and added that the “administration and the Police Department have come up with a plan that balances” the need to train students with the need to address any anxiety or nervousness they might be feeling about being safe at school.

He wouldn’t go into detail about how the School Department plans to implement the lock-down drill, nor would he say what it would entail. However, common practice includes emptying the halls and getting students into darkened, locked rooms.

During the public forum on school safety, Susi told a roomful of parents that Falmouth’s schools have never been safer and that one key element to preventing an active threat is “simply controlling the entry points.”

However, he’s also excited about the addition of another school resource officer on campus who would have primary responsibility for the elementary and middle schools.

In fact, Susi said he would “love to see a fully trained police officer in every school in Maine.”

Students want to be involved

There’s been a lot of concern about school safety and gun violence in schools across the country since a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.

That’s one reason the Falmouth School Department has decided to now include students in lock-down drills.

Peter Badalament, the principal at Falmouth High School, said in a recent interview that while students generally feel safe at school, there’s also been “some level of anxiety” recently about safety protocols.

“I’ve had several students come to me (in the last month) who want to know what the plan is and (who) want to be included,” he said.

Robin Haley, a substance abuse counselor and social worker at the school, said she’s also been getting some of those same questions.

“Overall people feel the school is safe,” she said, but the students also “want to know that there is a plan and that the (staff) is aware and knows what to do.”

“Unfortunately, we can never be 100 percent” sure that nothing will happen, Haley said, and “that doubt inevitably impacts on everyone’s feelings of vulnerability.”

For his part, Badalament has “been asking students whether they feel safe and what we can do to make them feel safer. The main message I’ve been giving to both parents and students, though, is that having (strong) relationships with adults and their peers is paramount.”

He said so far this school year, there’s been “zero to one fight (between students) depending on how you count it.”

The support team available to students not only includes the school social workers, guidance counselors and administrators, but the school resource officer, as well.

Badalament pointed out that how well the team charged with student welfare can respond to such an event, “depends upon the day. But the capacity is there to react” when a student is in trouble.

Sarah Maloney, a social worker at Falmouth High, agreed and said, “We (always) do the best we can. We all work very closely together as a unit and (all help) each other.” Regarding the school resource officer, Maloney said, “He’s deeply involved with issues that go way beyond disciplinary matters.”

“Our student services are very holistic,” added Tammy Heathco, a guidance counselor at the high school.

She also noted that students generally feel confident enough to “reach out for help and support and open the lines of communication” whether it’s for themselves or their friends.

This week Susi agreed with the idea of helping students make connections within the school community as a pro-active way to keep everyone safe.

“For parents and kids, I would strongly suggest (the key) is to stay connected,” he said.

“Find teachers, coaches, office staff or other adults in the school building to connect with. There are so many good, solid role models in these buildings for kids to connect with and form positive relationships with.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

The series

Part 1: The challenges facing efforts to integrate mental-health support in area schools.

 
This week: Lock-down and active-shooter procedures, and the role of school resource officers.

Mental health resources

• Cumberland County Crisis Response: Toll-free crisis intervention and suicide hotline, available to any resident of Cumberland County 24 hours a day at 888-568-1112. More information at https://goo.gl/8jjaas.

• NAMI Maine Helpline: Confidential helpline for peers, family members, friends, professionals and law enforcement, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Toll-free at 800-464-5767, press “1.” Email: helpline@namimaine.org. More info at https://goo.gl/FWCAoG.

• Maine 211: Connect with specialists 24/7; a free and confidential service. Dial 211, text your zip code to 898-211, email Info@211Maine.org, or go online at https://211maine.org/.

• Maine Behavioral Health:  24/7 information about treatment options. A “Rapid Access” program also allows callers to receive a mental health assessment quickly to begin receiving services. Call 844-292-0111.

 Federal Bureau of Investigation: To report a tip to the FBI Boston Office, which covers threats in the state of Maine, available 24/7, call 857-386-2000 or go online at: https://tips.fbi.gov/.

Rob Susi is the school resource officer for the Falmouth School Department. He’s not just responsible for the safety of those inside the town’s school buildings, he said, but also for being “an empathizer … a mentor … an encourager, a disciplinarian (and) an adviser” for students.

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