Officers at schools get praise after recent tip

MERRIMACK – The actions of a student who tipped off police about a classmate who allegedly threatened violence at the high school last week came up Thursday as community leaders discussed the value of school resource officers.

In a joint meeting between the Town Council and School Board, leaders learned about the status of the police presence at the middle school, which was initiated as a sort of pilot program this year.

But with the high school incident last week – in which its resource officer Mike Murray was approached – School Board member Jody Vaillancourt said she couldn’t think of a better reason to make the middle school presence a permanent one.

“I wholeheartedly understand the economic times, but these are people’s lives,” Vaillancourt said. “These are students lives, teachers’ lives and staff lives . . . The incident at high school was a 15-year-old. He was in the middle school last year . . . To have (resource officer) backup – you can’t put a price tag on that.”

Middle school principal Tom Levesque said officer Tom Prentice’s presence has been a deterrent to poor behavior and illegal activity, and teachers and students have reported feeling safer and more secure.

He added that two students recently ran away from the school, but because of Prentice’s relationship with those students, he was able to determine where they went, pick them up and bring them back.

In the past, Levesque said, it could’ve been weeks before the students were located.

In addition, Levesque said, problems among students, staff and parents are resolved more efficiently because Prentice knows the players. He can also talk with students about pertinent drug and alcohol threats.

“Students get a much more realistic perspective of the problems from someone they trust . . . and they understand the consequences of high-risk behaviors,” Levesque said.

Police Chief Mike Milligan said Prentice had spent 117 hours in the school since the beginning of the year, with 65 hours there since December.

From then until now, Prentice has responded to 24 calls for service to the school: five for truancy issues, two for disorderly conduct or fights, one for criminal mischief and one miscellaneous call.

The last 15 were handled by other officers when Prentice wasn’t available. They included seven police service calls, four abandoned and unfounded 911 calls and four cases of handling problem students who were counseled or referred to other services when it was necessary, according to statistics provided by Lt. Paul Trepaney.

Police did not make any arrests at the school, Milligan said, because children at their ages go through the juvenile justice system.

Prentice also conducted 17 individual student counseling sessions, spoke at nine student meetings, presented seven classes on drug abuse and attended seven faculty meetings.

The school board will soon investigate funding sources to support the resource officer program. The district is applying for a federal grant that includes money for a juvenile officer, who would split time between the school and meeting with families during evenings.

But the program is nationwide and ultra-competitive, so the district and the town may have to figure out other ways to fund the program in the future.

In other business, the school board will support conveying to the town a portion of district land on Continental Boulevard for a new south fire station.

However, any land transfers have to be voted on by the public, which would require a special district meeting unless the deal waited until 2010.

It’s possible such a vote could be folded into a meeting the town may hold regarding the spending of stimulus funds, but all of that depends on what the state Legislature decides.

Several bills are in the works.

In the meantime, the School Board and Town Council agreed that after Election Day on April 14, they will form a small committee to deal with land conveyance details, such as which 3 acres it will be, legal matters and future uses.