October 6, 2021 By Carol Britton Meyer
Following an intense discussion at a School Committee meeting last February about potentially drafting a resource dog policy for Hingham High School, the issue was tabled -- "in part because our attention was consumed by efforts to reopen the schools," HHS Principal Rick Swanson told the School Committee this week.
Swanson went before the board Monday night during a remote meeting to again express an interest in bringing a resource dog -- in particular, a seven-month-old mixed breed rescue dog from Texas named Opry -- to HHS. "Our interest in [doing this] has not waned," he said.
"To the contrary, we are more convinced than ever that a resource dog would be a very significant step forward for our school and community." There would be no cost to the town, and HHS School Resource Officer Tom Ford would be his owner and potential handler, not the school district.
While Swanson presented a great deal of information in support of bringing Opry to the high school, the School Committee and some residents who participated in the meeting were not convinced for a number of reasons.
These included concerns that this potential plan the second time around was not presented to the School Committee earlier and that issues causing concern in February remain unresolved; whether the school resource officer is the appropriate handler for Opry if the proposal moves forward; the need for more input to ensure all parental and other concerns are addressed; potential issues with students who are afraid of dogs or have allergies to them; and other considerations.
Taco visits beneficial to school community
Swanson explained that even the occasional visits by Taco -- a nine-year-old chocolate lab owned by the Grady family of Hingham -- accompanied by Michelle Grady --have proved beneficial to the HHS community.
"Taco has quickly become one of the most popular and well-loved figures at our school and has further convinced us that access to a full-time resource dog would make a tremendous impact on our school," Swanson said. "Thanks to Michelle and Taco, we were able to navigate through any concerns of allergies or anxieties and have learned best practices of using a dog in the building."
Taco regularly greets students at the front door and sometimes, when requested, visits classrooms to help lift the spirits of students, teachers, and staff during these challenging times in support of their social and emotional well-being.
At the end of the meeting, following a lengthy discussion, the board agreed that asking the School Committee's policy subcommittee to address this issue and explore the option of creating such a policy would be the appropriate next step.
Swanson noted that an earlier gift from the Class of 2020 to purchase a trained resource dog has been returned since there is no longer a need for those funds, because School Resource Officer Thomas Ford was gifted a dog that is ideally suited to serve in this capacity, according to Swanson.
Ford has been training Opry for the past four months on his own time and has enrolled her in extensive training with a certified professional dog trainer in Norwell, which Swanson said is exceeding expectations.
There was some conversation during the meeting about the difference between a resource and therapy dog and what role such an animal would play at the high school.
PAWS New England, a nonprofit organization that supports therapy dogs and their handlers, carefully selected and donated Opry based on her appropriate temperament for resource dog work.
"A special thank you to Animal Control Officer Leslie Badger for her vast network of resources, which allowed us to find this dog at no charge," Swanson said.
In addition, Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz donated $5,000 from his office's Community Programs fund for the care of the dog. Additional grants of $500 to $1,000 are available annually for this program.
The Hingham Animal Clinic has offered free vet care for Opry and has fully updated her vaccinations and shots.
Opry has completed her first training program and has been certified as an American Kennel Club STAR Puppy, which meets several key standards of appropriate dog behavior and temperament. Training will continue as she reaches her goal of achieving the AKC Good Citizenship certification, a standard for therapy and resource dog programs.
Adjustment counselors support proposal
"Our two high school adjustment counselors [Kevin Lalli and Jessica Hoguet] are not only among the strongest proponents of bringing a therapy dog to the school, but [Jessica] is willing to serve as a co-handler," Swanson said. "The counseling department as a whole works closely with Officer Ford to support students, and having a resource dog available as part of that support would be beneficial to the school community," Swanson said.
Officer Ford’s role in handling the dog would not be to engage in therapy or counseling "but to assist students, staff, and faculty in fulfilling our mission of improving our school climate," Swanson said. "It would be Officer Ford's job to have Opry be an actively visible presence not only during the school day, but also at [low-key] sporting events and other school-related activities [as appropriate]."
The dog would be a part of Ford's SRO duties and would remain with him if he was to leave the position for any reason.
While some School Committee members have received calls from concerned parents, Swanson said he has heard from only a couple and their concerns were addressed.
"For several years now, HHS counselors and special education teachers have repeatedly expressed a hope that HHS could implement a resource dog program," Swanson said.
"Similarly, during the past school year, students in the new HHS Unity Project envisioned a resource dog as one instrument that could help bring our school community together during a time of great need."
In response to Swanson's remark that "the use of a resource dog by our SRO is in line with national efforts of police reform with the goal of increasing positive interactions and experiences between the SRO and the students that they serve," School Committee member Tim Miller-Dempsey responded in part, "One of the concerns [some School Committee members] have is putting a uniformed officer in a therapeutic role in the school."
Fellow committee member Carlos DaSilva holds a different view. "I don't have an issue with a police officer, in this case a resource officer, being the handler of the dog, with a policy in place that perhaps an adjustment counselor would be the main person with the dog during school hours."
Committee Chair Kerry Ni said she questions the proposal "just because I see a fundamental difference between somebody who's in uniform with a firearm handling the dog versus a counselor who is trying to offer guidance to benefit students' social-emotional learning and health."
At the same time, Ni and others emphasized that their doubts about the proposal have nothing to do with Ford's performance as HHS SRO.
Parent Tien Do-Suarez, who spoke with Swanson about her concerns following the February meeting said she feels the proposal he presented Monday night is "like giving us an ultimatum" in response to him saying it wasn't feasible to have a counselor or other staff member be the sole handler of the dog and that essentially the resource officer in that role appears to be the most viable option to make the proposal work.
'There are a lot of mixed messages'
"I think this [issue] should be handled very carefully," Do-Suarez said. "There are a lot of mixed messages in terms of who would be handling the dog [and related considerations]. I think we really need to take our time with this."
Andrew Turner asked, "Should the handler be someone who is experienced in behavioral and emotional therapy or someone whose primary job, I think, is to kind of monitor student behavior [referring to the SRO] and who carries a gun? I think most of what I've heard tonight is folks who are pro therapy dog, but the handler shouldn't be the SRO."
In further support of having a resource dog at the high school, Swanson noted that resource dog programs in other communities indicate that they "can make a very strong impact on a school’s culture and climate, delivering powerful social-emotional benefits, not only for individual students in crisis, but also for the community as a whole." He also stated that his intention was not to give an ultimatum.
'There's a need for positive energy and strength'
Swanson went on to say that with regard to students in crisis at HHS, "We’ve never had more of them. With regard to the community as a whole: There's a need for sources of positive energy and strength. This [bringing on a full-time resource dog] could, and should, be one of those new sources of strength and unity as we strive to recover from the stress and strain of the past two years. It would be a great loss to forgo this opportunity."
When asked why the resource dog proposal is resurfacing and is actually quite far along in the process without School Committee approval and a policy in place, Swanson said the opportunity was presented to get Opry for the high school and he hoped that eventually "we could find our way to a policy and move in that direction more quickly with a dog already here."School Committee member Michelle Ayer said she was disappointed that after the committee making it clear that it had issues with the proposal last February, Swanson was back again before the board amid concerns she and others have heard from parents about the presence of a full-time dog at the school.
"No one would disagree that the idea of having such an animal in the school has a lot of merit to it," Ayer said. "It's just that, what's the proper policy to set for this [type of proposal]?"
Diane DeNapoli noted that there's often a long wait to obtain a resource/therapy dog and that doing so involves about 120 hours of training. "It's a huge commitment to have one of these animals, so I applaud Officer Ford for taking the initiative," she said. "I hope some of the logistical issues that have been raised about fear, allergies, and liabilities can be worked out so that the children can have one of these dogs at the high school."