MANKATO — Students will notice an increased police presence in Mankato schools when they return to classes this fall.
Director of Public Safety Todd Miller announced Wednesday he is making a budget shift that will allow him to hire a new patrol officer, then move an existing officer into a new police liaison position.
The new position will be funded by restructuring the budget used to pay employees who are not licensed police officers.
The department already has one school liaison officer, Tom Rother, who has been stretched thin by increasing calls for service at the city’s schools. There were nearly 300 of those calls during the past school year, Miller said. Rother will likely be moved to a new position where he will work both as a liaison officer and as a detective who handles juvenile cases.
“Our calls for service in the schools have increased and we’re hoping this will address that,” Miller said. “We hope to have the officer assigned by the start of school.”
Although the assignment will be announced, it will likely take longer before full-time liaison work can start because the new patrol officer will need to be hired and trained first, Miller added.
At one point several years ago, Mankato had four liaison officers working in the city’s schools. That was cut to one officer per high school, then later cut to one officer for the entire district in 2009 because of cuts to Local Government Aid. Rother’s current position is paid for by the school district.
Since being cut to one officer, the school district has been looking at ways to hire another officer through grants or other funding sources, said Sheri Blasing, West High School assistant principal. They have not been successful.
“We’ve been asking for this for awhile,” Blasing said. “Having a liaison officer here is such a proactive approach. Students get to know a police officer before they get into trouble. They learn that the officers are really here to protect and serve.”
Blasing works with Rother frequently when he is at West. If he’s available at the school, he handles the situations that would usually require a 911 call. He also spends time in the hallways between classes talking to students. If there is a situation where Blasing has to talk to two students who are having a conflict, Rother will often sit in on the conversation and offer guidance.
“Kids will come up and ask him questions,” Blasing said. “Even kids who are in crisis who are having family issues, they will talk to officer Rother. He’s done a really nice job of building relationships with kids and families.”
When Rother is at East High School or responding to problems at another school, Blasing or other West employees have to call on regular patrol officers to handle police situations. Those officers aren’t as familiar with the students or the school, she said.
Miller also plans to get those regular patrol officers into elementary schools more often. His community policing plan has broken the city down into five districts, which are roughly the same as the city’s five City Council wards. Each of those districts has four or five neighborhoods and patrol officers have been assigned to each neighborhood. In many cases, the officers also live in those neighborhoods.
Since the neighborhood plan was created, officers have been knocking on doors and introducing themselves or attending neighborhood activities. They also will be spending as much time as they can at the elementary schools in their neighborhoods, Miller said.
That’s something police officers in North Mankato and Eagle Lake have been doing at elementary schools in their cities for awhile, said Mankato Area Public Schools Supt. Sheri Allen. Mankato officers also visited elementary schools for various activities, but it will be nice to have students in each school see the same officer more often, she said.
“This just helps build relationships by the officers knowing their neighborhoods and us in the school district knowing who those officers are,” Allen said. “It creates that neighborhood feel in a larger community.”