By Doug Ireland
---- — For 11 years, Joan Marsilia was a familiar face in the hallways at Timberlane Regional High School as its school resource officer.
But with the beginning of the new school year, the veteran patrol officer is nowhere to be seen.
The same woman who was cheered on by hundreds of students as she had her head shaved for charity last year when the students raised $5,000 has been reassigned because of a “philosophical shift” and a need for “new blood,” Plaistow Police Chief Stephen Savage said.
Marsilia was transferred to the Police Department’s patrol force about three weeks ago, upsetting members of the community, he said.
“It met with an uproar,” he said.
Savage said it was decided a new school resource officer was needed in the wake of a recent administrative restructuring implemented by Superintendent Earl Metzler.
That shakeup resulted in a half-dozen administrators assuming new roles in the district in what Metzler said was an effort to improve leadership and “student services.”
Metzler said it’s important that the district focus more on the individual needs of students and how to meet them.
While both Savage and Metzler praised Marsilia for her work with students over the years, they said a change was needed. Marsilia, who could not be reached Friday for comment, wasn’t happy with the move, but accepted the decision, they said.
“She did a superlative job, but she was there for 11 years,” Savage said. “(Metzler) was looking for something she was not ready or willing to deliver.”
He would not elaborate.
Although Savage said there have been complaints about the move, Metzler said he hasn’t received any negative feedback from the public.
“There is a point, sometimes, when there is a time for a change,” Metzler said. Eleven years “in an SRO position is a long time.”
Some School Board members, including Roger Barczak and Richard Blair, declined to comment Friday.
“It’s being handled by Dr. Metzler and the police chief,” Blair said. “I’m letting them deal with it.”
But now the district doesn’t have a school resource officer and a replacement isn’t expected to be found any time soon, Savage said.
The district received a federal grant to hire a part-time middle school resource officer three years ago, but that position still hasn’t been filled, he said.
Metzler said until a replacement for Marsilia is found, he is confident Plaistow police can respond to any problems at the school.
No one in the department wants the position or could immediately step into the job, Savage said, so it probably won’t be filled until next year, he said.
“Everyone I talked to is asking, ‘When are you going to get someone new?”’ he said. “You have to pick a certain type of person.”
That person must have a lot of patience and enjoy working with children, Savage said. Many police officers just don’t want to deal with juveniles on a daily basis, he said.
Salem School Superintendent Michael Delahanty agrees.
“Not everyone is cut out to work in schools,” he said. “There are very good police officers, but they are not really good with the individual needs of students 8 , 9 and 17 years old
A valued position
Savage and Metzler said there is no question Marsilia will be replaced since the position would be too valuable to lose. It’s just a matter of when, they said.
School resource officers carry a handgun and patrol school grounds and hallways and also help deter crime, including bullying and other violence.
They respond to students’ needs, providing guidance, bonding with them and helping with difficult personal situations.
School resource officers also educate students — from elementary school to high school — on subjects such as social networking dangers and preventing drug and alcohol abuse.
“We take this very seriously and want to make sure our kids are safe,” Metzler said.
Matthew Norcross, a school resource officer in Salem for nine years, said he loves interacting with students and helping to make a difference in their lives while also preventing crime.
“We are preventing a lot of crimes because they come to us,” he said. “We stop them before they happen.”
Norcross said one of the most rewarding moments in his career was when a student walked up to him one day and confided in him.
“She said, ‘I was thinking about suicide, but I didn’t have anyone else to go to.”’
Norcross said he was just glad he was there for the girl when she needed him.
Officers nearly eliminated
But Norcross and his two fellow resource officers received a scare two years ago when Salem Town Manager Keith Hickey proposed the three positions be eliminated and the officers be reassigned to patrols.
An outcry, especially from school officials, persuaded selectmen to restore approximately $300,000 to pay for the positions, Delahanty said. The School Board also agreed to fund the jobs — instead of the town.
Norcross, who attends school resource officer meetings throughout New England, said he sometimes hears of positions being put in jeopardy because of communities’ needs to save money.
“I’ve had a lot of SROs tell me that they are being pulled,” he said. “When it’s time to cut, it’s one of the first positions they cut out.”
Pelham eliminated its resource officer position several years ago, but voters restored the job in 2011.
Delahanty said the public often thinks the school resource officers are hired solely to avert major tragedies, such as the massacre in December at a Newtown, Conn., school.
But it was the fatal shootings of 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999 that prompted Salem to hire its first school resource officer, Delahanty said.
Many residents were divided over whether a police officer was needed at Salem High School and whether the officer should be armed.
After the Newtown attack, many school districts around the country beefed up security at their schools, including Salem and Londonderry. They spent thousands of dollars on new security systems.
Londonderry voters also decided in March to spend $101,000 to a hire a second school resource officer for the district.