Like any other new arrival on the first day of school, Officer Bryan Henley didn’t know what to expect as he walked into Mt. Lebanon High School last August.
In 2018, the Mt. Lebanon Police Department partnered with the school district to provide a full-time school resource officer (SRO) at the high school. In addition to providing an armed response to any shooting or other violent incident, the SRO advises on safety and security, gives presentations on a number of subjects to teachers, students and staff, and guest-lectures at two honors law classes.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 42 percent of public schools reported that they had at least one SRO present at least one day a week during the 2015-2016 academic year.
The program was phased in. In April 2018, Cpl. Mike Smakosz and Officer Scott Kunz of the MLPD crime prevention unit began sharing SRO responsibilities at the high school—one or the other of the officers was there during school hours. The Mt. Lebanon School Board voted to fund a full-time position for the 2018-19 school year and Henley was selected for the position.
The cost for the position is shared between the district and municipality—the school district pays 65 percent of Henley’s salary and benefits, as that reflects the portion of his year he will devote to the district. He will not work in the schools during holiday breaks. “We haven’t figured the summer out yet,” he says. “We’re still looking at options.”
Henley has a background that makes him well suited to the job. He has dual degrees from Mercyhurst University in law enforcement and juvenile justice. He was a teacher and counselor at Pressley Ridge Schools, working with children with mental and behavioral issues; a substitute teacher in Penn Hills and a security guard at UPMC Braddock.
After serving four years in the Air Force as a crew chief on a C-5 transport plane, getting certification as an aircraft mechanic, he was all set to make that his career, but the post-9/11 airline industry was not a welcoming climate, so he enrolled in Mercyhurst’s police academy. Upon graduation, Henley received job offers from Mt. Lebanon and from the Pennsylvania State Police, and chose to work here. He has been with the MLPD for 16 years.
This is not the first time Mt. Lebanon Police employed an SRO. From 1998 through 2007, the department provided an SRO to Keystone Oaks High School, a district that serves Castle Shannon, Green Tree and Dormont but is physically located in Mt. Lebanon. But this was the first time Mt. Lebanon would have an SRO in the Mt. Lebanon School District. Neither Henley nor the almost 1,800 students and 200-plus faculty knew what that job was going to entail.
“I’m not going to lie,” says Henley, “when I first got here, there were people who didn’t know how to react, this armed, uniformed officer walking the halls. You’d pass by some people, they wouldn’t even make eye contact.”
Over the course of the first few months, he worked hard to establish a rapport and a sense of trust, not just with students and faculty, but also with parents. “I get it. I’m a parent myself,” says Henley, who has an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, “and if all of a sudden some guy I don’t know is going to be at my kids’ school, I’m going to have some questions. ‘Who is this guy? What’s he going to say and do?’”
To introduce himself, he gave several presentations, including one to the entire school, where he explained his vision of the job, and tried to dispel preconceived notions. “I felt like I had to increase their comfort level with me.”
As the school year progressed, Henley was able to make some inroads with students and staff—eye contact, the occasional nod, a little wave. Before he knew it, he was having actual conversations.
He credits a lot of the thaw to his initial approach, which has been pretty constant throughout his years as a patrol officer. “When you’re on patrol, a lot of times you come into a situation where emotions are already running hot, people are ramped up and they’re expecting you to be ramped up too,” he says. “But if you can come in and calm people down, like I would say ‘Relax! Just relax, and let’s figure out why I’m here,’ it’ll go a lot better. If you go in thumping your chest and walking around like a hardass, you’re not going to get what you want.”
He believes the same approach—respectful, attentive, not just laying down the law—has worked for him at the high school.
The desire to spend time with his own kids is one of the reasons Henley applied for the Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., SRO position. He arrives at the school about 30 minutes before the students, and uses the time to catch up on paperwork and email and to review the previous night’s police reports, in case one of his students was involved. In that event, Henley might reach out to act as a guide to the system, by first contacting the parents.
“Say, for example, someone got involved in something like underage drinking,” he says. “I could seek them out, not as any kind of criminal investigator, but just to calm their fears, let them know it’s not the end of the world and let them know what to expect next. I can bridge the gap between our kids and the police.”
When you enter Henley’s office, the first thing you notice is the giant screen with camera feeds from each school in the district. The system allows him to keep on top of events in real time and also to review footage.
“Say the guys at the station had an incident at Lincoln School the night before,” he says. “We can look back, see what happened.”
Along with the visual command center, Henley’s access to the district’s PowerSchool program, a tech platform that contains student information such as class schedule, attendance and grades, helps to boost his effectiveness.
“Even something like, I’ll get a call from one of the road officers who maybe found a violin outside one of the schools with a kid’s name inside, and they’ll ask me for a phone number so they can return it.”
Once the students have arrived, Henley’s day consists of talking with them, working with teachers and counselors and spending a lot of time in Center Court during lunch, making himself available to anyone who wants to talk. “I think the kids are getting used to me being here,” he says.
Henley’s office is located next to Dawn Begor’s, advisor to the high school newspaper, The Devil’s Advocate. “He
helps us get a pulse on the community,” says Begor. “He has a good sense of what kids care about.”
Henley pauses for an interview with Devil’s Advocate reporter Kelly Donis, for a story she is working on about a new weapons policy and a school board member’s suggestion that the rifle team be disbanded.
“It’s great that Bryan is super accessible to the kids,” says Begor. “He’s in just about every issue of The Devil’s Advocate, and will work with kids who need some practice interviewing someone, even give them some feedback.”
Mt. Lebanon High School Principal Brian McFeeley is glad to have an officer on the premises. “We’ve always worked closely with the Mt. Lebanon Police Department,” he says, “consulting with them on a number of issues, but the transition to having a full-time officer here was pretty well received.”
McFeeley and other school administrators were involved in the SRO selection process, with many conversations with Police Chief Aaron Lauth.
“Chief Lauth didn’t just assign us someone,” McFeeley says. “It’s not like he was dumping someone on us that he didn’t want on patrol. Everything was done for the right reasons.”
McFeeley sees continuity as the biggest plus in having the same on-site officer show up every day. “Everyone we’ve ever dealt with from the police department has been very professional and helpful,” he says. “But it would be a different officer every time. Officer Henley, being here all the time, learning our policies and procedures, gives us consistency that we didn’t have before. I think he’s a wonderful addition to our faculty and staff.”
Henley’s presence at the high school serves the police department as well. “If someone is involved in some incident, a lot of times the officer whose case it is will ask me, ‘Hey, what can you tell me about this kid?’ I can give them some background, some of the history,” Henley says.
Lauth was a strong advocate for the SRO position, and was confident that the program would succeed, but he says the work Henley has done this year exceeded his expectations.
“I’ve heard nothing but good comments from staff, students and parents,” he says. “Officer Henley has really taken the ball and run with it, becoming ingrained in the fabric of the school. I give him all the credit in the world.”