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06-27-2007, 12:38 PM
School Resource Officers teach, listen and counsel

SRO's job is more than just campus security

* North Port School Resource Officers help students in all levels of school. They teach, counsel and help maintain campus security. It takes a great deal of patience to be an effective SRO.

NORTH PORT -- Lee Wallace's job requires him to know the lyrics to all the latest hip-hop music.

Ty Newman has to recognize the gestures used by gang members to show disrespect.

"The kids do that all the time to us," Newman said. "They're trying to get a reaction from us, and we just have to ignore it."

Wallace and Newman, members of North Port's Police Department, are School Resource Officers at Heron Creek Middle School. In order to reach middle school students, they have to learn how kids in grades 6, 7 and 8 think. The SROs must know the music they listen to, what slang they use, how they dress and what interests them.

"We can't show them it bothers us when they show disrespect," Newman said. "They try to get right in your face, and we let them do that."

Wallace explained, "One of our main roles is to build relationships with the kids. In time, they learn they can trust us and confide in us. We are a sympathetic ear."

SROs are on campus to provide security. In the wake of school shootings such as at Columbine and Jonesboro, police are more visible in schools but they provide more benefits than just diffusing potential violence.

Recently, for instance, Newman and Wallace arrested an adult on the Heron Creek campus who was carrying drugs. Police partner with school staff to be on the lookout for suspicious people or situations like that.

But beyond that, perhaps one of the most important ways they interact is to listen to the kids.

"We show the kids, there's no reason for them to rebel against us," Wallace said. "We let them talk openly with us. They have to be able to say they want. That way, we build up their trust. For some of these kids, we may be the only adults they can talk to."

Newman related an incident in which one student had his video game system stolen by a classmate. Even though they're not supposed to bring those games to school in the first place, he said, "We didn't get on him for that. Instead, we help them act like detectives and give the offender a chance to bring the game back, no questions asked." In this way, Newman said they learn the SROs are not just out to "get them," and they get positive reinforcement for doing the right thing.

Wallace said at this age, students are still exploring and trying to discover who they are. Whether they are "goth" kids or influenced by the drug culture, often they have a problem with authority figures, and the SROs try to turn that around.

"It's not a statistic-driven job," Wallace added. "It's not like you can count the number of arrests made, or tickets issued."

Still, Newman said they are making progress. There's a lot of peer pressure with students that age, and sometimes a kid is trying to make a name for himself. He lets the kids approach when they're ready, and they will always find the SROs fair and willing to listen.

Patience needed

It takes a special temperament to be an SRO. According to a manual by the U.S. Department of Justice, an SRO must be "calm, approachable, able to put up gracefully with guff from kids, and patient."

"Patience is the number one requirement," according to Officer Joe Reed, one of two SROs at North Port High School.

Reed, who's been an SRO since the high school opened in 2001, said teenagers tend to be spontaneous and don't always think before they act.

"Being an SRO is community policing at its finest," Reed said. "Sometimes I'll have a bunch of kids come in and pack my office on Monday, just to tell me what they did over the weekend."

Reed said he solves a lot of crimes, or prevents them from happening, because "kids blab" to one another -- one might brag about something and it gets back to Reed through the teenage grapevine.

Detective Chris Cowan was an SRO until recently. He worked at both Toledo Blade and Lamarque elementary schools and also was the certified Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer. Being D.A.R.E.-certified required him to take an 80-hour course in addition to the SRO classes he'd had.

"I always liked working in youth programs," Cowan said, a sentiment most SROs share. "As soon as this position opened up, I applied.

"This was the hardest job I've ever had to leave," Cowan added, but he felt going to the detective office was a good career move.

Cowan formed bonds with many of the children he saw on a daily basis. "The students could come in and talk to me about any problems they might be having, and they grew to trust me," he said.

The role of the SROs is to break down barriers, to make the kids understand that it's OK to talk to them. Wallace explained that, at the middle school level, sometimes they are counseling kids all day long. By being open, they're able to reach kids who can't relate to any other adults.

Newman said, "I get more job satisfaction in one week than (my colleagues) get in a year."

SROs have their summers available for extra training, and there are many courses available to them. The Florida Association of SROs holds an annual weeklong conference in July where SROs can delve into such topics as Internet crimes, autism, K-9 searches in schools and suicide prevention. They also get updates on changes in the law.

Funding concerns

Lt. Tim Enos of the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office serves as director of Region 11 of Florida Association of SROs. The sheriff's office supports SROs throughout the county, and in fact Sheriff William Balkwill himself was once named the county's SRO of the year. Sarasota's SRO program has won awards for excellence from the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Enos, however, is worried that, even as good as the SRO program is, funding cuts could jeopardize it. The Sarasota School District pays half the cost, but the sheriff's office picks up the rest of the tab in some parts of the county. (In North Port, the city pays the other half of the program so cuts in the sheriff's budget will have less impact.) It's still unclear whether, or how, the recently passed tax reform measures could impact SROs.

In Sarasota, the sheriff's office proposed a $5 million increase for its 2007-08 budget, the smallest amount in recent history. But with the SCSO representing about a third of the whole county budget, the sheriff is a likely target for cuts.

What that might mean for school programs like SROs and D.A.R.E. remains to be seen. During county budget hearings last week, commissioners were looking to cut $5 million-$10 million in Sheriff Balkwill's proposed budget.

Although those cuts may not affect the North Port SRO program directly, they could reduce the level of guidance the city SROs get from the county, as well as extra programs such as the Junior Law Academy in which North Port students take part.

Lawrence Leon, the school district's head of Safety and Security, said the SROs are an excellent resource for children.

"Their job is threefold: to educate, to act as counselors, and the law enforcement piece," Leon said. "They provide added safety and security on our school campuses." Having officers at the schools also has decreased crime on campus, he said.

School tools

Reed said he serves as a teacher, a counselor and a role model. He also assists teachers and school administrators.

"If a kid is disruptive, teachers have little ability to take the kid out of the classroom. The SROs can do that, and the kids can't question our authority," he said.

He has noticed more disrespect recently among some students. "I call them the 'MTV Generation' -- they get ideas from music, how they dress."

And he said there is more obvious gang influence in North Port High School.

"We diffused a lot of that just by passing the 'no-hat' rule." Whenever some gang symbolism is spotted -- such as a bandana, or graffiti in a student's notebook -- Reed said they take a proactive stance. "We might call the parents and show them what the student is doing, and often that's enough."

Other security measures have kept campus crime rates low. The Raptor system for clearing visitors is one step. Also, 58 cameras were installed on the high school campus, including the parking lots and all five buildings. "That really reduced the incidence of bullying," Reed said. Now that students know they'll be caught on film, they are less likely to harass a classmate.

For Reed, the reward for his job is graduation day. "I've seen these kids since ninth grade. To see them when they get to be seniors, and all the accomplishments they've made, it's a great feeling."

The SROs agree, theirs can be a tough job, but it's a crucial aspect of community policing that helps shape the city's future, one child at a time.

You can e-mail Susan Hoffman at shoffman@sun-herald.com.


North Port Assistant Editor