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Lorain Schools request return of police presence

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LORAIN — The school district’s CEO is requesting Lorain police provide a school resource officer — roughly a month after the school’s chief operations officer told police they didn’t need one for the rest of the school year.

In a news release sent Wednesday night, CEO David Hardy detailed an incident at the high school where a student was in possession of two gun cartridges he’d found off school property. At the end of the release, Hardy states the high school is “still functioning without a school resource officer” and that he had sent an email to Mayor Chase Ritenauer and Police Chief Cel Rivera requesting “support from a SRO.”

The email, sent to Rivera and Ritenauer around the same time as the news release, states, “We understand that the SRO servicing our school is out for personal reasons. However, we need support from our local police force and city leadership if we are ever going to create the learning environment our community is asking for inside and outside of our schools.”

The district has been without a school resource officer since the third week of January, after Officer David Kusznir was injured while off-duty. At the March 19 Academic Distress Commission meeting, there was some confusion within the administration as to whether the district had a school resource officer. Questioned by Academic Distress Commission member Diane Conibear-Xander, Hardy said there was a school resource officer assigned to the district. Chief Operations Officer Jeff Hawks later corrected him, stating the officer had been out for about a month for personal reasons. Hawks then said the district had made an agreement with the Lorain Police Department to not provide a replacement because the department is short staffed.

On Thursday, Rivera said the department did not provide a school resource officer because Hawks had met with Capt. Roger Watkins and said they did not need one for the rest of the year — instead opting to allow the head of security and former Lorain police Officer Reuben Figueroa to handle any incidents. Watkins confirmed the meeting, and said it took place roughly the first couple weeks of February.

On Thursday evening, the district pointed to the memorandum of understanding requiring the Lorain Police Department to provide a substitute school resource officer if the assigned officer is out for more than four days.

Rivera said the department was in the process of finding a replacement for Kusznir when Hawks said they would rely on Figueroa.

“They asked us not to, saying they didn’t need it, and now this guy is trying to say it’s our job to replace (Kusznir),” he said. “Yeah, it is our job to replace him with the (memorandum of understanding), but not if you come and ask us not to.”

Rivera said after Kusznir was injured, two patrol officers were assigned to the high school for a couple weeks, until they agreed with Hawks that the officers weren’t needed.

‘Thirsting’ for collaboration

Hardy’s email to Ritenauer and Rivera goes on to state the district is “thirsting for the opportunity to truly collaborate on a consistent basis.”

District administration, representatives from the Academic Distress Commission, Rivera and other officers and representatives from the Lorain County Prosecutor’s Office had been meeting to discuss school safety in the fall. The meetings, which were prompted by increased violence in the schools, were in part to discuss a grant the police department was seeking to begin a violence intervention program in the schools, Rivera said. The meetings were put on hold in the spring after the grant process was delayed until earlier this week.

“Our record of collaboration speaks for itself,” he said. “We’ve been involved nonstop since 1992 — we’ve had program after program, and we’ve funded most of them.”

Lorain police programming has included bicycle and gun safety, establishing and training the district’s security officers and creating the district’s safety plan. It also hosts its Police Explorer program, allowing high school students to receive hands-on experience in the criminal justice field.

He said the district and police department share information on incidents involving students, to keep an eye on whether altercations at the schools are spilling into the streets or vice versa.

Rivera said the Hardy, Hawks and Figueroa all have his personal cell phone number and they would speak regularly. For example, if a basketball game was letting out and the district needed more officers at the gym, all they had to do was call.

A statement released by the district Thursday evening said Hardy reached out to the Rivera on March 1 and did not receive a response. The email was sent to Rivera and Sgt. Ray Colon. On Thursday, Rivera said that he had expected Hardy to set up the meeting with Colon, who would be handling the grant program, and therefore personally did not respond.

The district also said Figueroa sent an email to Rivera to confirm a March 22 meeting and did not receive a response. The meeting did not take place, according to the district. Rivera said that meeting was discussed via phone and rescheduled and did not have anything to do with the school resource officer position but was a follow-up on the grant project.

Ritenauer said he briefly spoke with Hardy at the Speak Up, Speak Out event mid-January, but not since then. Hardy refused to attend a joint Academic Distress Commission-school board meeting Feb. 26 that had been called by the mayor.

Hardy’s email to Rivera and Ritenauer also stated there has been a “consistent decrease in violent behaviors” in the district. On Thursday evening, the district said it could not provide data to support that claim, but that it would fulfill the request “as soon as possible.”

Rivera said the overall number of times the department has been called to the school has lowered this winter, but he expects an uptick as the weather warms.

He said the department used to see issues in the community spilling into the school, but recently problems in the schools have been finding their way to the streets. He said there have been an increased number of drive-by shootings into houses, in part because of disagreements or incidents in the school boiling over into the street.

Academic Distress Commission member and high school teacher Steve Cawthon echoed Rivera’s concerns on warmer weather and what it means for safety.

“I think discipline numbers normally decrease in the winter,” Cawthon said. “Let’s talk about what’s going to happen in the next two months. That’s going to be the concern that a lot of us have and a lot of the security people have in the building — what’s going to be the situation when the weather gets warmer and what type of things could happen?”

Timing

The district’s news release and subsequent concern about a school resource officer came one day after Ritenauer and Rivera testified in front of the Senate Education Committee in support of a bill to change the makeup of Lorain’s Academic Distress Commission.

Senate Bill 110, introduced by Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, had its second hearing Tuesday. Rivera’s testimony outlined problems in the district caused by its administration, including the “flawed” process used to pick the CEO, an authoritarian leadership style and a confrontational approach to elected officials.

Ritenauer finds the timing of Hardy’s email to him and the chief “interesting but not surprising.”

“I thought he’d wait a few days before trying to find an issue with the chief and the police department,” he said. “I think his timing just shows how aggravated he was by the chief’s testimony.”

Ritenauer said he took the comments Hardy made about Rivera to heart more than anything the CEO said about him.

“I take it very seriously when someone takes an unfair swipe at the police department or the chief of police. And the chief’s been around a long time, he knows this community well, he’s put in his time … to go after him in that manner as opposed to try to utilize him in a way that could benefit the schools, first of all I think is foolish. Second of all, it’s not something I’m going to stand for.”

Contact Carissa Woytach at 329-7245 or cwoytach@chroniclet.com.

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