School climate officers prevent violence at Sussex Tech

The Sussex Countian recently released an article about Sussex Tech’s Climate Officers.

By Shannon Marvel – Published by The Sussex Countian

Sussex Technical High School climate officer Brian Conlin monitors security camera footage.

A different approach to school safety at Sussex Technical High School is helping to curb violence.

In 2010, Sussex Technical School District adopted a unique security plan proposed by former Delaware State Police Master Corporal Brendan Warner. Over the past seven years, the school has experienced an average of less than two incidences of student violence per year.

Sussex Technical High School climate officer Brendan Warner coordinates an early dismissal.

“Most schools have a school resource officer, a state police officer typically,” said George Fisher, Sussex Tech’s Dean of Students. Fisher oversees the safety of the school’s 1,400 students and more than 100 staff members.

Sussex Tech is no longer one of those schools. After utilizing a school resource officer for years, administrators concluded that police presence was unnecessary at their school and adopted Warner’s security plan. Don’t call him a security officer though – his official title is “school climate officer.”

“When I was getting the proposal together, I thought climate, or the atmosphere of the school, was important,” he said. “Knowing what’s going on.”

A 23-year veteran of the state police, where he worked in programs like D.A.R.E. and Camp Barnes, Warner has always had a special relationship with the youth. Sussex Tech students stick their heads through a door to say “What’s up?” to him throughout the day. He takes pleasure in announcing home football games during the season. He can still remember what D.A.R.E. fifth-graders from 20 years ago wrote they wanted to be when they grew up.

“You can hire a security officer and stick them in a school, but if they don’t have the right attitude, if they’re not the kind of guy to have rapport with the kids, it’s not going to work as well,” Warner said.

A school climate officers’ job is to interact with the students daily and form relationships that allow them to learn information valuable in preventing school violence.

“We expect them to get involved in student life, meaning talk to them, joke with them, introduce themselves when parents come in,” said Sussex Tech Principal Dr. John Denby. “As opposed to the no-smile type of security guard, they try to remember something positive about people. They learn about the children and the families they represent. They become mentors. They do more than just watch people.”

Warner’s personality makes him a good fit for the job; he’s a self-professed “goofy” guy.

Sussex Technical High School senior Kirstyn Macnamara, left, with school climate officer Brendan Warner.

“So kids like to come in here and talk to us about things,” he said. “They’ll say something like, ‘Hey did you hear about so-and-so,’ and that way we know when there’s potential for a fight and can nip it in the bud. Teachers and parents come through here too, they all tell us stuff.”

Warner and his coworkers work from a kiosk in Sussex Tech’s lobby. Generally, one of them greets guests entering the school while the other patrols.

“We try to cut down the number of people in the building to only what’s necessary. Before, if a parent was coming in to pick up their kid for early dismissal or something, they had to walk through the school to the office,” said Warner. “Now they never leave the lobby.”

Inside the kiosk is a computer that scans state-issued identification cards against a sex offender database and prints badges for visitors to wear. Images from cameras placed throughout the school flash across a monitor; Warner said they often use the footage after the fact, if, say, something goes missing from a classroom. Walkie-talkies, which all school administrators and climate officers have, either sit in their chargers or on the hip of their user.

Aside from Warner, climate officers at Sussex Tech include Brian Conlin, a 27-year state police veteran who retired as a sergeant, and Warren Perry and Jerome Hitchens, both Delaware Department of Corrections retirees. Perry mainly works outdoors, patrolling the grounds in a golf cart, while Hitchens works afternoon and evening hours, during after-school activities.

According to Fisher, since Warner’s program was implemented in 2010 Sussex Tech has experienced only 11 incidents of violence. The most notable of those might be the fight that followed a Sussex Tech v. Cape Henlopen football game during which Cape students raised a sheet emblazoned with a vulgar insult on Sussex Tech. No one in that fight or any other fight over the last seven years was significantly injured, Fisher said.

But the most significant act of violence at Sussex Tech since 2010, which Fisher did not include in his count, was the 2013 suicide of a 15-year girl in a school restroom. At Sussex Tech, suicide is considered a health issue, not a school climate issue.

“I wasn’t directly involved in that incident,” Warner said. “But I was shocked and saddened, as was everyone involved.”

In 2015, the Delaware General Assembly enacted legislation requiring all school districts to develop a suicide prevention policy, provide employees with suicide prevention training and establish a committee at each school to oversee a suicide prevention program.

Whereas the Cape Henlopen and Indian River School Districts’ suicide prevention policies are a page or less in length, Sussex Technical School District’s policy is five pages long. It is also more specific than other districts’, including descriptions of two suicide prevention programs utilized by the district, the responsibilities of the suicide prevention coordinating committee, procedures for the confidential and anonymous reporting of suicide warning signs and procedures for communications amongst school staff and with medical professionals regarding suicide.

Sussex Tech’s suicide prevention coordinating committee, which they call the SEB, or Social, Emotional, Behavioral Team, is comprised of administrators, school counselors, nurses and other selected school staff.

“They meet every two weeks to identify students in need of assistance,” Warner said. “Climate officers are notified if there is a specific student we need to be aware of.”

Fisher said that school climate officers are “another outlet” for the students.

“They’re another set of people they can share their problems with. That’s important,” he said.

Sussex Tech students aren’t shy in expressing their fondness for Warner and his coworkers, either. Kirstyn Mcnamara, a 17-year-old senior at Sussex Tech, said students feel comfortable talking to the climate officers about pretty much anything.

“I know that if I ever had an issue, even a personal thing, and just wanted to talk and let it out, they would listen,” she said.

Photos by Shannon Marvel