Whitehall supervisor reconsiders village police presence at school

B y Lee Tugas

Initially intrigued by the idea, then skeptical, Whitehall Supervisor George Armstrong last week said he had reconsidered his position and was willing to fully explore the idea of permitting village police to intervene at Whitehall Central School in non-emergency matters.

Armstrong plans to have a meeting in mid-January with village and town officials, Whitehall Central School Superintendent Elisabeth Legault, Whitehall Village Police, New York state police and the Washington County Sheriff’s Department to discuss the matter further.

Village trustee pushing for agreement

Since October, Village Trustee and Police Commissioner Ken Bartholomew has been pushing for a municipal agreement between town and village that would grant village police full legal authority and liability protection on school grounds.

At that time, when Armstrong presented Bartholomew’s idea to the town board, he, Councilman Dave Hollister and Town Highway Superintendent Louis Pratt appeared optimistic about the proposal, since it was modeled on an existing system in place in Mechanicville.

The arrangement in Mechanicville is based on a legal opinion from state Assistant Attorney General James D. Cole. Cole concluded that a city may enter into a municipal cooperation agreement with a town for the provision of police services by the city on city school district property located on the town.

Legal cold water

Based on his letter, both town and village officials expressed optimism about quickly implementing a municipal agreement that would let village police handle non-emergency matters at the school.

But then a letter from Village Attorney Erika Sellar Ryan to Village Mayor Pete Telisky made Whitehall officials reconsider their position. The letter from Ryan did not say that a municipal agreement was impossible.

It simply stated that village police already had the right to intervene at the school in cases of “emergency.” What village police cannot currently do at the school, the letter states, is conduct drug searches, mediate teacher-student or teacher-administrator disputes or search the building for supposed criminal activity.

By Nov. 28, Ryan’s letter to Telisky and a conversation with Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy had convinced Armstrong that village police were only needed at the school in emergency situations.

At the time, Armstrong said he had no plans to pursue the idea any further.

Bartholomew presses for police presence

Bartholomew, acting as Police Commissioner, also fell into line with the position outlined in Ryan’s letter to Telisky. In an e-mail, Bartholomew directed village police not to respond to non-emergency calls from the school since to do so “would result in no protection for the officer as he or she would be operating outside the scope of their authority.”

Privately, however, Bartholomew has continued to lobby for the municipal agreement, arguing that since they are closest to the school, village police can intervene at the school faster than sheriff’s deputies or state police.

And the village trustee has argued that since they are the quickest, village police should not be confined to just emergency response.

According to statistics obtained by Bartholomew, there were 35 calls for service to the school in 2012, some of which were initiated by officers. The incidents investigated included an unstated number of assaults, six incidents of harassment, three disturbances, a larceny and two alleged sexual incidents.

According to the most recent state reports, Whitehall High School had 86 disciplinary incidents during the 2011-12 school year. In contrast, neighboring Granville High School reported only 22 disciplinary incidents, despite the fact that its population of 682 is nearly double Whitehall’s. (These statistics are contained in the Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting (VADIR) data that school districts are required to submit to the state.)

Village police arrive first for school lockdown

Bartholomew’s contention that since they are closest, village police can get to the school quickest was proved on Thursday, Dec. 6, when school officials summoned area police to what was believed to be an emergency involving an “intruder” in the school.

A student, informed that he had been suspended, nevertheless arrived at school convinced that he was not suspended. He brought with him a gym bag, the alleged contents of which caused administrative concern. That concern proved itself groundless when the bag was opened and its contents turned out to be two pairs of shorts and a jump rope.

Village police arrived on the scene first, only minutes after 8 a.m. State police and sheriff’s deputies arrived later, about 8:15 a.m., with state police taking over the lead in the investigation.

No reason stated for change of mind

Armstrong stated no specific reason why he was reconsidering the idea of a municipal agreement that would permit village police to intervene at Whitehall Central School in non-emergency matters.

He alluded to the lock-down at the school and gestured to Town Councilman Richard LaChapelle, a sergeant with the Whitehall Police Department, indicating that his views may have caused Armstrong to reconsider the idea.

What Armstrong did do was announce, “I’m going to hold a meeting with the state police, the sheriff, the mayor, the school superintendent and myself about village police and Whitehall Central School.”

“So we can all be on the same page,” LaChapelle added.

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