Pennsylvania diocese puts retired police officers in Catholic schools to protect, ‘mentor’ — By: Catholic News Agency

Greensburg officers are sworn in to serve the Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. / Credit: Courtesy of the Diocese of Greensburg

CNA Staff, Mar 26, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

A diocese in Pennsylvania is working to keep students safe by hiring retired police officers who become not only security detail but also mentors at each Catholic school. 

Days after his retirement from the Greensburg police station in July 2023 with 25 years of law enforcement experience, Lt. Ryan Maher began a new job as the director of security for the Diocese of Greensburg.

“I was tasked with forming a department and placing an officer in each of the 12 schools as the primary focus of my mission, with a longer-range mission of evaluating safety and security throughout the diocese in general,” Maher told CNA. 

Chief Ryan Maher is sworn in as the director of security for the Diocese of Greensburg. Credit: Courtesy of the Diocese of Greensburg

Last summer the former police officer filed the diocese as a private police department under Pennsylvania law, giving police full authority on diocesan property, parishes, and the 12 Greensburg Catholic schools. 

Now well into the school year, Maher has hired 18 police officers, all with at least 20 years of law enforcement experience. Most work full time; all must have attended either the Pennsylvania State Police Academy or the Pennsylvania Municipal Police Officers Training Academy, also known as Act 120. 

“Our goal is to have a full-time officer assigned to each building because then they become a member of that school community,” Maher explained. “They get to know the kids, they get to know the parents. That level of trust and familiarity is built with the students.”

But hiring was a “laborious process,” Maher told CNA. 

“We don’t want a hard-nosed law enforcement officer in there with blouse pants that’s walking around like the Gestapo,” Maher explained. “We want that person that’s going to be a mentor to the kids and be a part of that community. So it took a while to find the right folks to fill the positions.”

Bishop Larry Kulick hired Maher with a “vision of having a trained police officer in every school,” the diocese said in a press release.

A police officer keeps guard during a Mass in the Diocese of Greensburg. The officers have authority not only in Catholic schools but also on any diocese property. Credit: Courtesy of the Diocese of Greensburg.

The project began after a 2022 advisory council that Kulick formed “to research the issues related to school violence,” Maher explained. 

Once the project was announced, parents wanted it in place as soon as possible, Maher said. 

“They wanted it done yesterday,” he said. “There was no pushback or anything along those lines.”

Now the community that Maher envisioned is coming to fruition. Each school “has an officer every day that the kiddos are in the building.” 

“We’ve gotten all positive feedback,” he said. “And as far as mentoring goes, I supervise the officers working in the 12 schools, so I’m out and about throughout the week at various locations. And I see the kids coming up and giving fist bumps to our guys, or I see our guys asking a fifth grader how that test went last week, how the basketball game went last evening, and those types of things.”

“They’ve really gotten to know the kids,” Maher said. “They know their families, if they have siblings or not, those types of things — those small, little details.” 

He says officers are quick to sign up to work at extra events such as graduation ceremonies.

“They feel that sense of pride in seeing these kids accomplish something and moving on to the next phase,” Maher noted. “They want to be there and be a part of that special moment for those kids as well.” 

“And that’s what it’s all about, is building those relationships, because once those kiddos feel that this is another trusted adult that has an interest in them, that’s when those kids will bring information to the officers,” he continued. “And that’s what could prevent a tragedy happening that very easily could be avoided.”

While other private police departments exist throughout Pennsylvania, the Greensburg Diocese is pioneering this particular model. 

“We’re not the first in the commonwealth, but we’re certainly the first diocese within the commonwealth to do this,” Maher noted. 

This isn’t the only initiative the diocese is taking on to help school safety. The diocese also implemented a joint venture with Catholic Charities to place counselors in the school at least one day a week, he said. 

“So that occurred at the same time that the police department was being formed because we view [school violence] as a multifaceted problem that we’re trying to tackle,” Maher said. “And we’re coming at it from a bunch of different ways.”

Chief Ryan Maher is the director of security for the Diocese of Greensburg. Maher has 25 years of law enforcement experience. Credit: Courtesy of the Diocese of Greensburg.

When asked if other areas could follow Greensburg’s model, he noted that “we’re certainly not the first to put police officers in schools by any stretch.”

“It’s just a sad commentary of society that that’s where we are, but I think it’s necessary,” he said. “I think it’s a model that could be followed in other organizations that are similar to us. But I think it can’t be the only step that is being taken to prevent some tragedy from occurring.”

Maher highlighted other improvements such as “mental health evaluations,” “resources being available to students,” and “physical security of buildings.” 

“There’s a lot of components that go into making a safe environment,” he said. “But this is one of them. This is one part of it that I think is certainly necessary.”

Maher, who is Catholic, said that while his police background informs his job performance, his faith is important as a moral foundation. 

“I think that having a strong faith in this position, as it is with any law enforcement position, is important,” he said. “Because that’s where your morals come from in the first place. So it influences it, but it doesn’t necessarily guide every aspect of what I do.”

“I think that it makes me sensitive to the organization,” he added, “and the specialness of what is going on in the schools, and why our parents have the kids in our schools.”

Maher said it’s been “a great experience” so far. 

“Building something from the ground up and seeing the fruits of the labor has been fantastic,” he said, adding that he appreciates “getting to work with a great group of people, not only within my department but throughout the diocese.”

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