A1 A1
Superintendents back cops in schools, report trusting relationships


Earlier this month, about 200 people representing more than 20 schools took part in a student-led march in downtown St. Paul, calling on Minnesota school districts to end contracts with local police departments.

But while the vocal group says having law enforcement stationed in schools creates problems, Rice County superintendents defend the SRO services police departments provide to their schools. For superintendents, Jeff Elstad, of Owatonna Public Schools, Todd Sesker, of Faribault Public Schools, and Matt Hillmannn, of Northfield Public Schools, the relationships come down to trust.

School resource officer programs have drawn scrutiny and criticism in the wake of the late May police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Proponents say SROs keep schools safe, but opponents say they can be more of an impediment than a help to students and have called for money spent on SROs to pay for more counselors and other student services.

Kaaha Kaahiye was among the speakers who addressed the crowd before the Aug. 8 march. She said she saw several Black students assaulted by a school resource officer when she attended high school in St. Paul.

“All students, and Black students especially, have a right to police-free learning environments. And we’re going to make that happen today,” she told the crowd, highlighting the student-led origins of the event.

The group gathered outside the building housing the headquarters of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, and marched to the state Capitol.

Some Minnesota school districts, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, already have severed ties with local police departments. Organizers pushed to see more districts across the state take the same step.

A local angle

At Owatonna, Northfield, Faribault Public Schools, superintendents have a different take on SROs.

“I understand there are questions across the nation, and I understand officer-involved shootings kill Black men at a higher rate than white men,” Hillmann said. “At the same time, I think we have to look at the local police department structure.”

Hillmann commends Northfield Police Chief Mark Elliott’s leadership and the amount of training school resource officers undergo. He views SROs as “one part of the overall system” where other resources include counselors, social workers and school psychologists.

Apart from his regular law enforcement training, Northfield SRO Bart Wiese attends additional training as an SRO to stay informed of school laws and their privacy data. Last year, before school started, Northfield Public Schools offered a week full of training that included guest speakers focusing on diversity. This year, the pandemic has presented barriers to that training.

The national discussion on the necessity of SROs prompted Northfield Public Schools to provide an annual data report to the School Board on the SROs’ services, clarifying any misconceptions about their responsibilities. The schools will begin releasing that report this academic year.

“Our school district is committed to anti-racism,” Hillmann said. “George Floyd’s murder has shed light on a number of strategies that elevate that. I think we have a positive relationship with a well-trained department that prioritizes the needs of every child.”

Hillmann said SROs hold a variety of responsibilities within the district, teaching the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program to fifth-graders, developing positive relationships with staff members and families, providing traffic support and addressing concerns students may have outside of school.

“It’s a good situation where we have a person from the police department who already has relationships with teachers, communities and families to work through some of those situations together,” Hillmann said. “… Many of the school resource officers have lived in Northfield and have a deep connection to the community in a number of different ways.”

One resource officer, Wiese, serves eight schools in Northfield, public, charter and parochial. The total cost to the district annually is $58,722 — .0009% of its operating budget. Since Wiese is employed through the city, that total does not include his benefits and compensation.

“I work with a lot of teens; sometimes it’s problem solving, sometimes education and guidance,” Wiese said. “I try to be the first contact with parents and juveniles because I’m a face they recognize.”

In conducting search warrants, Wiese intervenes if a juvenile is involved. A mix of students and staff report to him, he said, and many calls are related to incidents in the home that carry over to the schools.

“There’s reports and there’s incidents,” Wiese said. “I might have three or four things going on, but there’s no way to calculate that. I know I’m stretched thin as an SRO. We have one, so it’s definitely a hard job.”

Wiese believes he could accomplish more as an SRO if he wasn’t the only one working for Northfield Public Schools.

“Sometimes I have to tell people they just have to call patrol because I’m tied up, and I don’t like doing that,” he said.

But despite needing more help sometimes, Wiese said being an SRO is the most rewarding role he’s had in his career so far.

“I believe I have a really great relationship with the schools’ admin,” Wiese said. “My job does carry over to a lot of positive encounters outside of school. Even in COVID, I have my face mask on, but these young people recognized me. There’s a lot of trust. I’ve been called to situations just because of what I do during the school day.”

Many hats

Brady Vaith is entering his fifth year as an SRO for Owatonna High School and Area Learning Center. The other SRO, Steve Bowman, primarily handles middle school and elementary calls and incidents.

“We’ve been at our schools for multiple years, not just me but the police department in general,” Vaith said. “Kids have grown up seeing us here. We’re here for their safety, not to get anyone in trouble, and to assist if they have any issues.”

Vaith said SROs’ main service is building security and monitoring who enters and exits the schools throughout the day. He intervenes if fights between students or other incidents occur, but said principals often step in as well.

In the lunchroom, Vaith strikes up conversations with students. Many approach him first if they’re concerned about something that happened over the weekend. According to Vaith, a large number of incidents happen outside of school, especially ones related to child protection, domestic issues in the home and sometimes sexual assaults.

“We partner up with social workers who are there, and we’re able to go through everything with them all at once,” Vaith said. “It’s more of a team effort. [Students] have more than one person there to help them through.”

Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad added that the SROs serve as relationship-builders so students understand law enforcement and educate children and teens on “being good members of society.” They check on students who are absent for a period of time, provide supervision at athletic and major school events and also model career opportunities for students interested in law enforcement.

SROs also lead ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training to prepare teachers and staff for the event of an active shooter.

“We have in our high school a community of 1,500 every day,” Elstad said. “If there was a community with 1,500 residents, how many officers would you need just to make sure everyone is doing what they should be doing? They help us because they provide supervision and resources for us that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise cover.”

Part of Owatonna’s safe school levy pays for the officers, and the rest of the funding comes from the general fund. In total, the school district spends $148,000 annually on the two officers. The Owatonna Police Department covers training as well as the officers’ benefits and compensation.

Bob Olson, director of facilities, infrastructure and security at Owatonna Public Schools, believes the district gets its “bang for its buck” by investing in SROs.

“As a former principal here, I like to see the interactions between students and SROs,” Olson said. “ … They built great relationships with the kids so if they have to do any kind of investigation, they’ve already built up that relationship so the kids trust them.”

Building trust

The Faribault Police Department employs two school resource officers, Detective DJ Skluzacek at Faribault High School and Detective John Gramling at Faribault Middle School.

The district spends $110,000 per year on the two school resource officers, according to Director of Finances Andrew Adams. That total comes from the general fund, but state dollars offset that. Since officers are employed through the Faribault Police Department, they receive benefits and compensation through the city.

“The SROs maintain a very good relationship with the schools,” said Faribault Detective Sgt. Matt Long. “They fulfill an important role in the link between Faribault having a good representation and relationship with law enforcement. It’s a very positive relationship school resource officers have with the kids.”

According to data reports from the Faribault Police Department, students reported concerns directly to the SRO at the building for 255 incidents in 2018-19 rather than going to a teacher or administrator first. Incidents dropped to 121 student concerns in 2019-20. High school students sought help from SROs for 45 incidents in 2018-19 and 27 incidents in 2019-20, according to reports.

The reports also cite a number of instances when staff members sought assistance from SROs. In 2018-19, SROs received 138 of these calls from Faribault Middle School and 50 from FHS. In 2019-20, staff members called SROs to assist 125 incidents at the middle school and 15 incidents at FHS. One such incident occurred earlier this year, when the FHS administration reported to an SRO that a student had allegedly threatened a school shooting via a social media message.

In academic year 2018-19, SROs received calls for 172 reported incidents at FHS and 446 at Faribault Middle School. More recently, in 2019-20, calls decreased to 138 at FHS and 207 at the middle school. The reports state that many “routine contacts” with students and assistance provided to faculty are not documented.

While there was a drop in incidents from one year to the next, the school closure that happened in mid-March this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic made the data “not quite an apples to apples comparison,” said Superintendent Sesker.

Long agreed that the drop in incidents “had everything to do with the pandemic” since officers were not on campus for the last months of school.

Sesker also tethers the drop in incidents to the district’s positive behavior plan, which promotes relationship-building between students and the adults in each building. From his perspective, SROs fit right into that plan of creating trust.

“We all know when students connect with adults, that creates a better environment for students. We do see a reduction with negative behaviors,” Sesker said. “Resource officers build relationships with kids internally and outside the buildings, and they’re right with administrators, proactively working with students and the administrative team.”

Medford developing relief program for businesses hurt by COVID

Small businesses based in Steele County’s oldest town may soon feel some relief as they continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanks to federal dollars provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the city of Medford is developing a small business relief program by utilizing a portion of the $96,737 in federal funds it received. During Monday’s City Council meeting City Administrator Andy Welti estimated anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 could be available for small local businesses.

“Cities are scrambling to put these grant programs together in a very short period of time,” Welti said, adding that the dollars need to be spent by mid-November. “Some cities are keeping their programs very open-ended and some are more restrictive, and I would say that ours is somewhere in the middle.”

Working closely with the Medford Economic Development Authority, the city program will provide up to $5,000 to small businesses based on their individual economic injury from COVID-19 and eligible expenses. Funds can be used for operating expenses including rent payments, mortgage payments, utilities, payments to suppliers or other critical non-payroll business expenses, including expenses related to reopening and staying safe. Welti and Donna Mack with the Medford EDA will review the applications to determine the appropriate funding amount per business.

“The goal of the city is to provide as many of these grants as possible,” Welti said. “No one has been through this before, so we are going to have businesses not submit full information at first, and I don’t think we should just shut out door on them if that happens.”

Because of the tedious nature of going through the applications and making follow up phone calls with local businesses, the council authorized the Community and Economic Development (CEDA) to provide an additional staff member if Mack is unable to dedicate the required time to getting information to businesses and reviewing the applications. CEDA is a nonprofit corporation that helps serve communities, businesses and residents. Mack is a CEDA employee contracted by the city of Medford to head up the EDA.

Welti said any expenses billed to the city for an additional CEDA employee would be recovered through the CARES Act funding.

Because it is unknown at this time how many businesses in Medford will apply for the small businesses relief grants, Welti said the amount of CARES Act dollars put toward the program could fluctuate. In addition, the Steele County Board of Commissioners last week approved $23,000 of its CARES Act funding for Medford’s small business relief program.

“This isn’t going to be a first come, first serve kind of program,” Welti said. “We are trying to provide relief to all businesses.”

Eligible businesses must have operated within Medford prior to March 1, have appropriate licenses and be in good standing with the Minnesota Secretary of State, be able to demonstrate a loss since March 15, and must demonstrate any funds received through this program do not duplicate assistance received from other sources.

Applications will be accepted from Sept. 1-30. Welti said the goal will be to have the EDA determine the awards during its Oct. 14 meeting and have the council approve the decision during their Oct. 26 meeting. Funds must sent to businesses no later than Oct. 30.

Daytripper winners

Daytripper winners

Emma Dahnert

Owatonna’s Emma Dahnert controls the ball during a Big Nine Conference game against Rochester Century on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019 at the Owatonna Soccer Complex. The senior defender recently committed to play in college at NCAA Division II Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press, File)

In light of social distancing, OPS bus routes get an update

After two weeks of planning, Owatonna Public Schools’ bus routes have been mapped out.

A two-tiered system will allow buses to be at 50% capacity and social distancing between riders. Amanda Heilman, the district’s director of finances and operations, gave an overview of how busing will work this year during Monday night’s school board meeting.

The first tier of buses will pick up secondary students along with riders living in the rural area of the district. The second will pick up elementary school students. Their day will start at 8:25 a.m. and end at 2:05 p.m. Elementary students will be picked up first and delivered home first, followed by the secondary students.

“As far as the day schedule for our secondary students, their day will remain the same as it was last year as far as start and end time,” Heilman said. “It’ll just be the elementary that we had to adjust in order to make sure we get everyone to school safely…”

Minnesota Department of Health guidance states that due to the coronavirus, the number of people on school buses or transportation vehicles should be at half capacity at a maximum.

Letters will be sent by the end of the week to families who have requested and are eligible for transportation services with more information about their specific bus route.

Everyone riding school transportation must wear a face covering. Face coverings will be available for drivers and riders. Seating will be arranged to maintain 6 feet of distance between occupants when feasible. School transportation vehicles will be regularly cleaned and disinfected between routes with extra focus on frequently touched areas. If rider becomes sick during the day they will not be allowed to ride the bus home. The family will instead be contacted to arrange transportation home, according to the Owatonna Public Schools Safe Start Learning Plan.

If a driver falls ill after the morning pickup and drop off, they will not be permitted to drive the afternoon route.

Owatonna School District loads up on PPE and cleaning supplies

Facilities, Infrastructure, and Security Director Bob Olson shared how the district is preparing its supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“It’s been hectic, I can tell you that,” Olson said while sitting in a room with boxes of PPE.

A pallet of gloves will be arriving at the district soon, along with cleaning supplies. Masks and face shields from the state of Minnesota have been picked up from Rochester. On Thursday the masks and shields will be distributed to Owatonna Public School buildings. Floor stickers have been ordered so people know where to stand and which direction hallway traffic should flow, according to Olson.

“I never thought I would be a guru on PPE, and I’m still not a guru on it because I’m learning every day,” Olson said.

Olson also mentioned that staff in the Maintenance Department have been building more protective barriers intended for those who requested extra protection due to medical issues.

“Our custodial staff has been getting trained and training each other and also now training the staff on what’s a proper dwell time for when you spray down a disinfectant,” Olson said.

The district will not be disinfecting playground equipment after every use. This is the direction other surrounding school districts have also taken, according to Olson.

“The research out there shows that the touch isn’t as bad as some of the other areas and there would be no way that we could continually keep up with that,” Olson said.

The Playground Guidance for Schools and Child Care Programs document from the Minnesota Department of Health reads, “It is not practical to disinfect entire large playground structures, and is not proven to reduce risk of COVID19 to the public. Cleaning and disinfection of wooden surfaces (play structures, benches, tables) or ground covers (mulch, sand) is not recommended.”

Playgrounds are also accessible after hours, which makes keeping the playgrounds clean more of a challenge. Instead the district will push hand washing.

“When kids are out on the playground they need to make sure that they go back and wash their hands with soap and water and or hand sanitizer,” Olson said.

School principals have identified areas where groups or classes of students can have their recess break. The plan is then to have the classes rotate around these areas each day. Students will not be allowed on the playground prior to school or after school, according to Director of Teaching Learning Michelle Krell.

“So we are really just trying to control it with the number of students and hand sanitizing before and after going out to the playground,” she said.

The Minnesota Department of Health has asked schools to consider staggering students’ outdoor play in shifts and encourage hand washing before and after play. The department also suggests keeping the same group of students together during recess to reduce potential exposure.