Essex’s lone school resource officer (SRO) will work out of the high school next year in a change that district and police officials say will provide better community relations and a more effective response to behavioral issues.

Though the majority of safety issues warranting a police response historically occur at Essex High School, police Chief Rick Garey said the Essex Police Department’s (EPD) school resource officer has never had a permanent space there.

Instead, the officer floated around to the district’s 10 school buildings through a hybrid role of teaching in the classroom and addressing behavioral issues when needed.

Starting next year, however, Essex’s SRO will maintain a permanent office in the high school and focus more on security and safety issues, with a goal of integrating into the school system so they’re known for more than being “the cop that shows up when someone is in trouble, or the guy who teaches drug resistance,” Garey said.

The chief said the new position would work on a flexible schedule, attending sporting or other school events when needed while working on special projects like traffic enforcement when school isn’t in session.

The change comes amid nearly 30 years of having some form of police presence in what’s now the Essex Westford School District (EWSD). Cpl. Kurt Miglinas served in that position for more than 20 years up until his retirement late last year, paving the way for Ofc. Michael Roberto, who has been named EPD’s newest resource officer.

Roberto joined EPD in 2013 after two summers in the department’s bike patrol program. The son of a recently-retired cop in Pennsylvania who served for 30 years, Roberto said he always expected he would become an SRO at some point in his career.

Roberto will still find himself in the classroom certain times throughout the school year, but Garey said the SRO role will have an increased focus on security.

Roberto said he’s excited to take on the role. He hoped to build upon Miglinas’s work and said “if we can get this ball rolling in the right direction, it’s just going to help the police department, help the community – help everybody, really.”

School officials voice similar support for the change, believing it will reinforce positive relationships between students and law enforcement.

As proof, Brian Donahue, EWSD’s chief operating officer, pointed to a series of school safety forums the district held two years ago following several incidents that occurred in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Fla. That included an incident that saw students alerting police to a potentially threatening post from a juvenile, whom police eventually tracked down and cited after deeming it a hoax.

At those forums, most of the nearly 100 attendees – mainly parents – said they believed the best way to make schools safer is to create a sense of belonging.

Giving the SRO a physical location in the building furthers that idea, Donahue said, while also giving students another adult with whom they can build a relationship. Donahue believes those relationships prove vital in the fight to keep schools safe.

“Any relationship is built on trust, and trust is a process of experience,” he said. “By having our Essex PD inside of our school … we have an opportunity to build that trust.”

The opportunity could become even greater if Garey’s plan to increase the SRO staff pans out. The chief recently approached the selectboard and trustees with the idea and said he’s working with the school district on a funding model that could find EPD and EWSD each paying for a single officer while splitting the costs of the third.

The staffing increase would help catch Essex up to models in other area schools, Garey said. South Burlington, for example,  has a unit of three SROs overseen by a sergeant.

Garey said EPD could have a second SRO in the district as early as the start of the next school year.

Donahue supports the increase because he said it would bolster the district’s relationship with the police department and the local community justice center.

Working together, the three entities could create a “force within a force,” he said, one that could help the entire community “reimagine” juvenile policing and double down on the school district’s continued emphasis on restorative justice.

Still, Donahue understood that some parents may see the move as just a way to get an armed guard into the building. He said though that reasoning falls “so far down the list,” he knows a permanent police presence will inevitably change how some students experience their time at the high school.

“We know that there are students of ours who feel less safe when the police are around than when they aren’t,” Donahue said. “That’s their background. That’s their experience. Our past process has been to just accept that. This process is to try to lean into that some and change it.”

“We do that by building trust,” he said.

Roberto agreed, saying his goal is to show students that police are there to help them.

“If we can build the relationship with kids where they see me around, they realize that I’m not a robot who’s going to take them to jail – that I’m a person who they can talk to me if they have questions, then we can start building … a better groundwork for them in the future,” he said.