There’s something new at Belmont High School this school year: a Belmont police officer.
“The first thing [students] asked me was ‘what did we do wrong to deserve this?'” said Dr. Dan Richards, Belmont High’s principal.
Not that Belmont Police Officer Melissa O’Connor is a stranger to the school; the 2001 Belmont High graduate and former captain of the soccer team use to roam the hallways with her friends and teammates.
“It doesn’t look that much different since I was here,” said O’Connor – a seven-year veteran of the force – standing in the central entrance as the final classes of the day are being dismissed.
There remains a perception that whenever a police officer enters a school building “it means there’s trouble inside,” said Richards.
But to the town, school and public safety officials who supported a dedicated school resource officer, those days have changed and with it, the role of the police and schools.
“The law hasn’t come to the hallways of Belmont High School,” said Richards, noting the high school is one of just a few in the area not to have an officer in the halls.
The re-introduction of the resource officer – one was assigned to the district until budget cuts about a decade ago ended the program – has now less to do with law enforcement than an added hand to assist educators with nearly 1,200 students at the high school, O’Connor and Richards both said.
A 2013 Congressional Research Service study on school resource officers concluded that schools with law enforcement officers did not see any greater reduction in crime or offenses than in the general school-age population. Belmont High has a very low rate of serious incidents compared to schools statewide, which itself is one of the least violent in the country.
Rather then spend her time patrolling the halls targeting minor offenses – a policy the Congressional Research Study calls out as detrimental to students – O’Connor will be supporting the work of the administration and staff, said Richards.
“[O’Connor] will be assisting the administration. The school has a student handbook that we go by, and Melissa doesn’t trump those regulations. When we need further assistance, she’ll be invited in to help us,” said Richards.
“Being a resource to everyone in the school is the most important thing we are trying to do in addition to building relationships with the students,” said O’Connor.
O’Connor’s “beat” now includes being in the hallways, in the cafeteria, at sporting events; seen but also available to anyone, be it student or staff.
“I’m here so the kids can ask me questions in an environment where they are safe and comfortable and can I build relationships with them,” said O’Connor, who holds an MA in legal studies from Curry College.
And within the first week of being at BHS, O’Connor was asked to assist with two female students who had rekindled an argument from the previous school year.
As the assistant principals mediated the issue, O’Connor added a “real world” element to the resolution: “if you continue making ‘bad’ decisions, this is what will occur to you legally. Don’t go down that road,” said O’Connor.
“That’s something no assistant principal has the background to express,” said Richards.
More than resolving disputes
Nor is O’Connor there to work only on dispute resolution. Teachers are approaching her on education subjects, including one who asked her to discuss criminal procedure in the “You and the Law” class.
“For example, I told the class how should kids act and what should we say during a police stop or if the police shows up to a house party. I gave them my take on the matter,” said O’Connor.
O’Connor arrival occurs after a summer filled with images of the militarization of the law enforcement and the reaction to alleged police misconduct.
Yet O’Connor believes being a presence around campus will breed a familiarity and create an openness with the student where “they’ll be seeing me in a different light.”
“I believe soon she’ll be pulled in all sorts of directions as people get more comfortable with [her],” said Richards.
While O’Connor’s role is expected to expand, the question brought up at this year’s Belmont Town Meeting was the appropriateness of removing a police officers from servicing the entire town and into the school, a role that could be performed with an additional counselor or assistant principal.
Richards counted the argument saying that a councilor “can not respond to certain things that Melissa.”
“In this day and age, threats do exist and are part of the everyday life of kids. We are bringing in expertise or insurance to make sure things are safe here,” said Richards. As an example, a councilor can not review the school’s lock-down procedures or be as effective in a stay-in-place emergency as O’Connor.
“She will also bring a new set of eyes to the school’s overall safety and show how we can be safer if you do this and take away what’s wrong,” said Richards.
In the rare case of a major crisis, “I think she will take the lead role and we’d step aside,” he said, hoping that the administrator’s expertise rubs off on O’Connor to where she gains in the education aspect of the job and the administration can view the school through a public safety lens.
O’Connor has been seeking an opportunity to reestablish the position at the high school, noting that she was a sports coach at the high school and Bentley University and “enjoyed creating relationships “because as a student I had a coach or adult who I could talk to to figure out issues.”
After an admittedly “cool” start, the students are beginning to warm up to O’Connor, said Richards. “At first they were a little shy but that’s changing,” said O’Connor.
“They no longer are asking about police duties but the ‘I have a question’ question,” she said.