By Andrew Tellijohn
A growing spate of calls for service from the Red Rock Ridge Alternative Learning Center (ALC) was taxing the Windom Police Department’s staff of nine officers. So, the city approached the ALC and its parent company looking for a proactive solution.
The ALC, which serves high school students with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and behavioral issues, called the police 40 times during the 2017-2018 school year. That’s a lot for the small southwest Minnesota city of 4,500, and it stretched thin the overall police coverage for the community.
Leaders at the school’s parent company, the Southwest/West Central Cooperative, agreed that a change was needed. It was decided that the city and the school would split the cost to have a police presence at the school on a part-time basis, starting with the 2018-2019 school year.
As a result, calls for service declined in 2018-2019 by 27%, from 40 to 29. That success led to a formalized pilot program for the 2019-2020 school year that resulted in just 21 calls before the COVID-19 pandemic mostly took students away from school.
“We were able to reduce calls for service and arrests by having a presence at the school,” says Police Chief Scott Peterson.
Part of the program’s success, adds Assistant Police Chief Cory Hillesheim, stems from proactively taking the time to build relationships with students during good times instead of only seeing them during the bad times.
Building relationships with students
“It’s been working pretty well,” Hillesheim says. “Before, the only time the kids would see us was when we were up there because we were called. But now they’re seeing us regularly during the day, and we’re forming relationships with the kids.”
As part of the program, a police officer on the day shift will spend about an hour a day at Red Rock Ridge. The visits take place at varying times throughout the week, so students can’t pick up on any patterns.
The goals are to be more visible, to build relationships with the students, and to help provide coping skills that students can use to diffuse situations that used to result in police calls.
Some of the programming is planned, but some of the relationship-building has happened informally, when officers join a pick-up basketball game, for example, or talk with a student looking upset while walking the hallways.
In addition to the community policing duties, the police also provide training for school staff on such topics as harassment and restraining orders, and they conduct an active shooter training program called Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate (ALICE). The department has also used its K-9 unit to sweep the school for illegal drugs.
One of the important factors in creating the program was that the decision makers from the co-op, the ALC, and the city sat down together to discuss the problem and hash out a solution, says City Administrator Steve Nasby.
Initially, the city proposed a full-time presence on-site. The co-op didn’t want that due to budget constraints, but further discussion fleshed out the present solution. Everyone agreed that something needed to be done, Nasby says, and having everyone present for initial meetings created trust and ensured everyone was getting the same information.
“The co-op, the city administrator, myself, and the chief all got together and said it’s going to be a win-win for everybody,’” Hillesheim says. “It’s been a good thing. And that is reflected in our calls.”
The city has seen similar positive benefits from having a student resource officer assigned to the Windom Area Middle/ High School and Winfair Elementary, Nasby says. That has also helped reduce incidents involving students. “We’ve done that for years,” he says.
Future of the position
Despite the success of the initial pilot program, the position is a bit in flux as the 2020-2021 school year winds down. Due to COVID-19, students at Red Rock Ridge have primarily been learning remotely, reducing calls and the co-op’s contribution for the school year to $8,800, down from $29,000 previously. The city hopes to resume the full program in the fall if students return for traditional in-person classes. “I believe this school is much safer than it was four years ago,” Peterson says. “This program has worked for both parties.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer.