on his new role as the state school security marshal
Kentucky School Advocate
In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
Ben Wilcox is the state school security marshal, a new position created by Senate Bill 1, the School Safety and Resiliency Act. His career has included work in law enforcement, school security and for the Department of Criminal Justice Training (DOCJT). Here he talks about his new role and his goals for improving school security.
Q: You’re the first person to hold this job. Why did it appeal to you?
A: I started my law enforcement career in 1999 as a deputy with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office; it was right after Columbine and everybody’s focus was school safety. A few months later, I got offered a job as a school resource officer. I loved being a school police officer and did that for six years. I got an opportunity to do this job because of my background being a school resource officer, but, also, I have two children in school. One's in middle school and one’s in elementary and my wife, Angie, is a school counselor. She’s been an educator for 19 years. I think the commissioner saw my background and my passion for children’s safety.
Q: What have you learned from your wife about the importance of mental health services and their impact on school safety?
A: An immense amount. I look at it from a law enforcement perspective but get her perspective on the students. Having her perspective on the way education and schools see the necessity and importance of this really ties into what we’re trying to do with the compliance issue and making sure that we are using a full spectrum on school safety, from hardening schools and having school resource officers in there.
Q: Before this new role, you were with the Department of Criminal Justice Training?
A: I was a vehicle operations instructor for about five years and in the firearm section for a little over eight years. My most recent job was section supervisor of instructional design.
Q: What value will your law enforcement and school resource officer roles have in your new job?
As a resource officer I learned about the inner workings of the school system. As a parent, I have also served on a PTO and school-based decision making council. I believe anybody doing anything with public safety or public education has the same goals – to help people and to educate people. But we speak sometimes a different language. Being able to understand the schools and the law enforcement side is crucial. We will be able to go into schools and know where they’re coming from and explain where we’re coming from.
Q: How many compliance officers will there be?
A: We’re looking at hiring 14 compliance officers. Two will be supervisors.
Q: So they will go to the schools and do the assessments?
A: Yes. They will be spread all over the state. We want them to live in the area where they work. I think it is important to have our assessors close to the schools they will assess. My vision is that they will be not only a compliance officer but a resource. If you have a question on the School Safety and Resiliency Act or on safety, you can contact that compliance officer.
Q: Will there be a continuing connection between them and the schools?
A: Yes. Many people are interested in the positions and have backgrounds in not only law enforcement but in education. They will be able to relate to these folks.
Q: Is there a deadline to have these staff in place?
A: We hope to start the assessments at the first of next year. The first assessments will be for our compliance officers to introduce themselves and do an assessment using the assessment tool. Starting with the 2020-21 school year, official assessments begin. We’ll start gathering information so we can put our reports together by September 2021 when they are due.
Q: What will the most important aspect of your job be?
A: Right now, going out and explaining to the schools the role of the school security marshal. After we get the office up and running, I will be a conduit for the schools. If they have questions regarding the School Safety and Resiliency Act, issues with compliance officers or questions about the assessment tool. Administrators and school staff will be able to contact me and I’ll filter that information to our compliance staff.
Q: Do you see yourself being out in the districts much?
A: I’m a former police officer, so I like to be in the field. I feel I’m going to do a lot of traveling, meeting with schools while these compliance assessments are going on. I’ve done a lot of presenting this year to conferences and school groups, and I feel like I’ll be doing that throughout my tenure.
Q: As you’ve met with districts leaders at these conferences, what concerns do they express about the school safety bill?
A: The only concerns I’m getting are, “How can we implement this?”, “Can I have some assistance?” and “What do we need to do to make this happen?” The comments have always been positive. The message we’re sending them from DOCJT and the school security marshal’s office is that we’re not here to say, “I got you,” or “You’re not doing this right.” We are here to be a resource and make sure everybody’s on the same page to get this done. When we do these reports, I hope we can highlight schools that are going above and beyond and share that information with other schools.
Q: KSBA has surveyed districts to calculate how much money it will take for districts to meet the building upgrade requirements. Why are the building upgrades so important?
A: The building upgrades help the school to be the safest it can be. Having locked doors at all times during instructional time is not a huge building upgrade, but it ensures kids are in lockdown and safe.
Q: You’ve also pointed out that building upgrades are only effective if they are used properly.
A: They have a button at the front door so the receptionist or the administrative assistant can buzz someone in. But it’s not, “I wave at somebody and buzz them in.” They must find out who that person is, why they are at the school. Before we press that button and let them into our schools, we have to make sure they’re in their right mind. If that’s not the case, we don’t push that button and we call somebody to help. My job in doing the assessment tools is to be sure that we’re consistently using the procedures and upgrades.
Q: What messages about implementing this bill would you like to communicate to school board members and administrators?
A: Read the bill, implement the bill. If you have questions or issues, reach out to our office. If we can’t answer your question, we will get you to the help you need with these assessments. Use the compliance officers as a resource to say, “We’re concerned about this, how can we fix this?”
Q: Any pointers to pass along to school boards about how they can help the districts be as safe as possible?
A: The School Safety and Resiliency Act is a great start. My wife went to a safety meeting at the beginning of the summer. They discussed Senate Bill 1, the School Safety and Resiliency Act. She said, “We're doing all this, but we started talking about how we can do it better.” And I think that when schools look at it and say that then it’s not just a check off. We’re getting the conversation started in the schools about how important this is and getting everybody’s input on it from janitorial staff to folks that work in a lunch room to bus drivers.
Q: You have said you hope schools will share their best practices and ideas.
A: I hope a compliance officer will come in and say, “Wow, you guys are going above and beyond and we need to get this out to the rest of the state.” You may have another school that says, “We don’t know how to get this done, but we just read that another school system is working on it. Now we can utilize that.”
Q: Looking ahead a year from now, what do you hope to have accomplished?
A: I hope to have all of our compliance officers in place with 40 hours of training and certification. That certification is going to be huge because we’re going over so many things from the actual assessment tool. I want to be sitting here talking to you end of July next year, knowing that all those compliance officers have gone out and made contact with their schools, become familiar with the people they will work with. And they should be ready and set to go for the 2020-21 school year. I think that we can do that.
Photo: State school security marshal Ben Wilcox talks to a Fayette County Public Schools police officer during KSBA’s Federal & State Law Update held in June at Fayette County’s Frederick Douglass High School.