Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three-part series looking at school safety measures in Goshen County. Look for parts two and three in future editions.
GOSHEN COUNTY – Torrington Police Department brought back the 1990s era Drug Abuse Resistance Education (or D.A.R.E.) program with a new modernized curriculum; the department will soon have a second school resource officer (SRO) in the upcoming school year; and reported that department officers undergo intensive active school shooting training multiple times a year.
In light of the latest school shooting tragedy at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, TX, the Torrington Telegram is taking a comprehensive look into school safety measures in, around Torrington and Goshen County. Meanwhile, both the Torrington Police Department and Goshen County School District wanted to take a moment to explain to students, parents, teachers and community members what measures are in place to protect students that help enhance school safety.
Both agencies wanted to remind community members that school safety is the top priority – but that it starts with building meaningful relationships with its student body population.
A flood of memories come to mind when the D.A.R.E. program is mentioned to residents who were in school during the 80s and 90s, but today’s D.A.R.E. program is more focused on the prevailing prevention science which emphasizes teaching specific information about specific drugs and their negative effects rather than how its predecessor focused on education from officers being the “human face” of drug prevention in schools.
The original D.A.R.E. program officially ran from 1983 through the end of the 2008-2009 school year but many districts nationwide continued the program as late as 2019. The program originated out of Los Angeles, Cali., in a collaborative effort from the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District to combat the growing usage of Cocaine, among other drugs, in K-12 schools in the 80s.
Prior to the implementation and quick expansion of the D.A.R.E. program, virtually no university or college taught about drug use and/or abuse, nor did college education courses designed for future teachers teach about health concerns relating to drug use or how to respond to drug use within the classroom. The D.A.R.E. program bridged that for teachers and students.
In Torrington, Goshen County School District (GCSD) adopted and implemented the original D.A.R.E. program in Aug. 1987 which ran through June 2019, for 32 years total. However, the modernized D.A.R.E. program made a comeback in Torrington alone for the 2021-2022 school year.
Citing a growing acceptance of an increased police presence at the schools engaged in community policing models, in his final report as former interim Goshen County School District Superintendent Dr. Rick Patterson announced the end of the original D.A.R.E. program after a meeting with then Torrington Police Chief Timothy Hurd.
“There’s no question in (Hurd’s) interest in working with us and cooperating with us,” Patterson said in an interview with the Torrington Telegram in June 2019.
“As a chief and throughout my career I’ve really never been a fan of D.A.R.E. to begin with,” Hurd told the Telegram in the same story which ran June 13, 2019. “It has its place in urban areas, large metropolitan areas, but statistically speaking, it’s been proven time and time again as having zero - if any - effect in the positive manner of how children past the fifth grade look at narcotics or look at how they’re going to be educated in the future involving narcotics.”
However, current Torrington Police Chief Matt Johnson believes that the modernized D.A.R.E. program provides an integral and crucial component for law enforcement and SRO’s to establish meaningful and lasting relationships with the student body population in which the department serves.
“Personal relationships matter,” Johnson said, “If you are looking for resiliency in kids, and even in adults, it doesn’t come from impersonal means – like social media – it comes from a boots on the ground approach and really cultivating personal relationships with the kids and teachers at the schools we serve.”
Johnson believes one way Torrington can improve meaningful relationships with students and teachers, with regards to keeping school safety in mind, is by reintroducing community policing programs, like the updated D.A.R.E. program, which is just one of many youth intervention and alternative programs the department utilizes.
Torrington School Resource Officer Jeff Ryall is the son of two parents who were teachers and his father coached youth boy’s basketball; he is the D.A.R.E. program officer.
“It’s always great working with the kids,” Ryall said. “The lower elementary and lower secondary students get pretty excited to see us (Torrington officers) come in and talk to them – and they really have enjoyed the opportunity to do the D.A.R.E. program this school year.”
Officer Ryall and Officer Nick Jenkins facilitate the D.A.R.E. program in all Torrington schools right now, but Ryall said with renewed enthusiasm and support from Goshen County School District board members, he hopes it is a program that can be brought back to all schools within the district.
“We serve as their instructor and are certified in the current D.A.R.E. curriculum which is pretty comprehensive and adjusted for grade level as well as the needs of our community,” Ryall added.
Like Chief Johnson, Ryall also believes that the D.A.R.E. program and other youth alternative programs aid in supporting safer schools through relationship building.
“These programs really help with a healthy community policing aspect, but they also help us make more impactful relationships with students,” Ryall explained. “This relational aspect does go much further in identifying potentially problematic behaviors.”
Ryall also said that part of his job as SRO and D.A.R.E. program officer is to help youth navigate from the “I love law enforcement” mentality typical of younger students through the “law enforcement has authority and might be scary” mentality of older students.
“Generally, I try to show students that I am also a human behind my badge – so not scary at all,” Ryall said, “and I’m a person who is here to help them with whatever need they may have, whether that is counseling or education.”
According to dare.org, 13 Wyoming law enforcement agencies work with the program and have certified D.A.R.E. program officers; nearest programs to Torrington are the Laramie County Sheriff Department and the Sheridan County Sheriff Department. D.A.R.E. Central Regional Director Craig Siebel could not be reached to interview prior to publication. For more information about the modernized D.A.R.E. program visit, www.dare.org. There is a free virtual training conference for SRO’s in mid-July.
According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), roughly 6,200 districts nationwide out of 13,809 districts still have SRO programs in some form or another. From May 2020 through November 2021, 49 school districts ended SRO programs, citing law enforcement budget cuts and/or low K-12 funding availability. Although no school districts in Wyoming cut SRO programs entirely, several districts did reduce SRO programs.
The U.S. Department of Education and NCES estimates that roughly 50% of SRO’s today rotate between three to six schools. As of right now, Torrington employs one SRO officer for its four schools. However, according to Chief Johnson, the department will more than likely have two SRO officers in the 2022-2023 school year, provided the approval of federal grants.
“It’s an improvement in taking a stand for school safety – which begins with forging a better relationship with our schools through our SRO programs,” Johnson explained. “The best way our department can do that is by gaining funding for more school resource officers.”
In addition to teaching D.A.R.E. at each school, Ryall said he starts most days at the high school greeting students to help set a safe academic atmosphere before heading to the middle school to help school administrators work out safety concerns and eventually one of the two elementary schools to engage kids through teaching and/or play.
Torrington Police Department in conjunction with Goshen County School District are currently working together to obtain federal funding through grants in order to provide Torrington with a second SRO next school year. Once the funding is approved Johnson said he and the district will notify the Telegram to inform residents.
According to reports from NCES, the reduction of SRO’s and SRO programs came at the height of the modern defund police movement. The reports also detailed that among the first programs to be cut in law enforcement agencies nationwide were SRO programs, many districts citing these programs as “problematic” or “unnecessary” to safer school environments.
The movement itself isn’t new, it originated during the violent riots in Los Angeles from April 29 through May 4, 1992, on the 25th anniversary of a policeman being acquitted in a case regarding the beating of Rodney King. Later, groups like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and ANTIFA reinvigorated the movement starting in 2013 and hit its height in 2017. However, today’s modern defund police movement is fueled by the death of George Floyd in May 2020.
Data from these reports also show that prior to 2016, roughly 11,400 districts (of 13,809) employed SRO’s in full-or- part-time positions, mostly on-campus and nearly every school in a district had one dedicated SRO; roughly 12% of SRO’s rotated between three to six schools during this time, making it to each school about once a week on average.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education reported districts employed over 52,000 SRO’s nationwide in the 2015-2016 school year. The number of employed SRO’s reduced to roughly 38,000 in the 2016-2017 school year. Today, in 2022, the education department estimates roughly 15,000 SRO’s are employed, with several districts employing no SRO’s at all. In just seven years, that’s a reduction of 71% of SRO’s in districts nationwide. There was no direct data available for Wyoming only districts.
The reports also indicated that since 2016, excluding school closure months in 2020 and 2021, school violence increased by nearly 70%; most alarming was the 47% increase in reported school violence at elementary schools during that time.
For the first time ever, “the total victimization rate reported in 2019 was higher at school than away from school,” NCES reported in the 2020 Incidence of Victimization at School and Away from School report published May 2022. Data for 2020 is expected in May 2023. Data for 2021 is expected in 2024.
“In 2020, the rate of victimization at school for students ages 12-18 was 11 victimizations per 1,000 students,” NCES report stated. “The rate of victimization not in connection with school was 15 victimizations per 1,000 students.” For this report and more visit, www.nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/a02.
NCES and the U.S. Department of Education reported that an average of 422,800 school violence incidents, or nine incidents per 1,000 students enrolled, occur on K-12 campuses every year, noting the highest year of violence incidents occured in 2017 and again in 2019. Preliminary data suggest the 2021-2022 school year was another violent year in schools as children returned to full-time, in-person learning without interruptions since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
According to the NCES Crime Victimization Survey, in 2017, one year after roughly 45% of schools removed SRO’s and SRO programs, violence school incidents topped 1.4 million reported crimes among youth at schools. Another roughly 600,000 to 1.1 million violence youth crime cases off school campuses are unknown, unreported or unsolved during this same time frame, but are believed to be related to reported school violence incidents.
Not including shooting incidents or mass shootings, roughly 80% of schools reported one or more violent incidents in 2017, which resulted in 56 deaths on school campuses ranging from homicide and suicide.
Not including shooting incidents or mass shootings, roughly 47% of schools reported one or more violent incidents in 2018, which resulted in 38 deaths on school campuses ranging from homicide and suicide.
Not including shooting incidents or mass shootings, roughly 47% of schools reported one or more violent incidents in 2019, which resulted in 42 deaths on school campuses ranging from homicide and suicide.
Not including shooting incidents or mass shootings, roughly 47% of schools reported one or more violent incidents in 2020, which resulted in 75 deaths on school campuses ranging from homicide and suicide. The 2020 report, released July 2021, is a 10-year comprehensive report which analyzed data from the 1990 Gun-Free School Zone Act and the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colo. through the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
Data for 2020 is not yet available and data for 2022 will not be available until mid 2023.
Data is collected every two years by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics School Crime Supplement (SCS) report in conjunction with NCES. For more information visit, www.nces.ed.gov under Condition of Education reports for each school year or www.bjs.ojp.gov under Report of Indicators of School Crime and Safety for each year. These reports began generating in the 1999-2000 school year, one year after Columbine. The U.S. National Institute of Justice also submits data to these reports.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s program Community Oriented Policing Services (or C.O.P.S.), an SRO program supporting safe schools and community engagement program, SRO’s are trained for and have four job functions at schools and within their service communities.
Those four job functions include:
Law Enforcer: promotes safety in or around the school and community, by addressing crime and fear of crime. Serves as a liaison between the school and law enforcement/judicial agencies.
Informal Counselor: Builds relationships to identify changes in behaviors, social engagement, academic performance, sports involvement and relationship/character building. Reinforces positive behaviors and discourages negative behaviors. Connects youth with needed/requested services/aid/help.
Educator: Teaches topics related to law enforcement, judicial systems, alternative legal programs - all geared toward positive student behaviors and criminal aversion programs.
Emergency Manager: Develops and implements comprehensive safety plans during emergencies of all sorts – weather, criminal, tragic, social, emotional, etc – in coordination with school administrators and all jurisdictional law enforcement agencies. Acts as the last line of defense in tragic situations to prevent or manage those incidents. Extremely trained in lock-down procedures and active-shooter situations to prevent mass loss of life.
C.O.P.S. estimates that more than half of violent school incidents are averted with the help of SRO’s and SRO programs. In a comprehensive Averted School Violence (ASV) Database 2021 analysis report, triggered by the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Conn.; the agency analyzed 171 averted and 60 carried-out violent attacks at schools nationwide. It was determined that averted incidents were “generally uncovered by people in a small number of categories closely associated with the school.” Second to only peer-reporting (to school administrators, most of which were to SRO’s the report notes) a majority of those uncovered, averted (prevented) school violent acts were credited to SRO’s. The database is currently analyzing nearly 300 averted incidents for its next report.
Because a large number of averted school violent incidents are reported by peers to school administrators, mostly SRO’s and school counselors, C.O.P.S. wrote, “it is important for school officials to ensure that every adult – administrator, faculty, staff, or SRO – work to develop strong relationships with students so that students feel comfortable reporting concerns about possible threats.”
C.O.P.S. also noted that roughly 70% of would-be school shooters turn themselves into school officials, namely SRO’s. SRO’s were first introduced in the U.S. in the early 1950s but did not become a mainstay until the early 1990s. For more visit, www.cops.usdoj.gov/supportingsafeschools.
Just last year, Arvada, Colo. SRO Officer Gordon Beesley, died protecting his community and nearby elementary school, when a gunman opened fire in the community. Beesley was credited with transforming the lives of several youth members from going down the wrong paths in life by the school district and chief of police. This year, community members honored Beesley with a memorial at the schools and parks he served as SRO at. He even rode his bike to school with a special needs child who was determined to ride his bike to school, every year for almost 3 years before he was shot by the gunman.
“Our officers undergo a very real, authentic active shooter training about three times a year,” Chief Johnson said. “It’s very intense and uses the sounds – like children screaming – and sights an officer might encounter in an active school shooter situation to prepare us as best we can to run straight in and stop the threat.”
Officer Ryall agreed with Chief Johnson when he said, “we hope that we never have to see how well our training is, but we are confident that we are well trained and prepared to manage a crisis situation.”
“The D.A.R.E. program, SRO program and other youth mitigation programs act as a litmus test for our community because they all cultivate that deeper relationship with students where our officers, school administrators, teachers, parents and other students can help identify and hopefully prevent violent school acts,” Johnson explained. “We intend to do everything we can to educate our students and community and engage with them in meaningful ways, whether or not they stay here in Torrington or eventually spread their wings into larger metropolitan areas.” He said this approach will best help prepare students leaving for colleges or jobs after they leave Torrington.
“I want parents and students to know that as their SRO officer and D.A.R.E. teacher that I’m not here sneaking around trying to catch them engaged in wrongful acts or behaviors,” Ryall explained. “I’m here to keep them and our community educated, safe and engaged with the rest of the community.” He said it’s his hope to identify risky behaviors and potential violent threats before they occur so that he can counsel youth into making better decisions.
“Every case is different, each kid is unique, so we handle things on a case-by-case basis depending on the situation and circumstances – but of course school administrators and parents are notified so they can continue these important conversations at home,” Ryall added.
“Officer Jeff (Ryall) is far too humble – but he is absolutely amazing and one of the best officers I’ve seen when it comes to engaging with, communicating with and connecting with our youth at our schools,” Chief Johnson added. “His community policing as an SRO and sports coaching leadership directly relates to the success of our schoolchildren in Torrington.”
Johnson said some of the concerns the department is looking to address from the SRO and D.A.R.E. programs standpoint is the things kids are facing today.
“Take a look at what our youth are facing today, things like: drugs, namely weed, but harsher, more potent and laced marijuana and drugs; in addition to an increased tendency of self-harm; coupled with an increase of an online presence, especially on social media – that’s a recipe for disaster,” Johnson explained.
Adding: “Our intent with our programs is not only that personal relationships matter point of view – but that we are all human, and we must acknowledge what these young people are feeling, they need to know that they matter, and they are significant in our community and the world around us.”
“At the end of the day, if we can reach just one child, change their life – then it’s worth it to continue these various intervention, education and alternative youth programs,” Ryall added.
In parts two and three of this series, the Torrington Telegram will look at mental health access for youth in Goshen County with correlating local and national data; historical school shooting data and Wyoming specific violent incidents data; and requirements by Wyoming law that allows teachers to be trained, certified and permitted to conceal carry on school campuses during school hours.