July 2, 2011 in City
Resourceful officers: School cops wear many hats
A job description for a school resource officer reads: “law enforcement officer, law-related counselor and law-related educator.”
Becky Wilkey, the Ferris High School resource officer, would add to that list: “Nurse, parent, psychologist, psychiatrist and janitor.”
High-profile cases at Inland Northwest schools have brought attention to a job that can slip under the radar.
In recent months, there were stabbings at two Coeur d’Alene middle schools; an ounce of marijuana was found in a student’s car and a 14-year-old boy brought a .40-caliber handgun to school, both in the East Valley School District; and a 17-year-old Medical Lake High School student threatened a teen by showing him a picture portraying a Ku Klux Klansman hanging President Barack Obama.
School resource officers throughout the Inland Northwest say those incidents are the exception. Nevertheless, some minor criminal activity – drug possession, bullying or vandalism – happens almost every day in the schools. But many more crimes are prevented because of the time the officers spend talking with students and parents.
The students develop relationships with the officers and are willing to divulge information “on a daily basis,” said Andy Sterling, Lake City High School resource officer in the Coeur d’Alene School District. “It could be about a weapon or just about a fight after school. We are able to prevent a lot of the physical violence, and if we weren’t sitting in that office, who would they report to?”
Abt Associates Inc., a Massachusetts research and consulting company, recently conducted a case study on school resource officers for the U.S. Department of Justice. The research found that officers in larger districts spend about 10 percent of their time on actual law enforcement duties and 70 percent talking with students, parents and faculty and teaching about laws. The other 20 percent is spent on activities such as paperwork or attending after-school events.
The percentages vary depending on whether there are formal law enforcement courses in a school, such as the D.A.R.E. program. Spokane Public Schools’ officers do not teach courses, officials said, so they spend about 10 percent more time on law enforcement duties.
“It’s our job to provide a safe environment, and make the students and staff feel like they are protected,” Sterling said. “I love what I do. I like working with kids – making differences in kids’ lives.”
A small city
A school resource officer is like the police chief of a small town with a population of several hundred 5- to 18-year-olds with a small group of adults mixed in.
“The benefit of this job versus having city officers visit the schools is I’m not going to deal with a kid one day. We’re here every day; and it’s to our benefit to develop a relationship,” said Wilkey, Ferris High School’s resource officer. “You learn their mannerisms, their hangouts and you know where they are going to be the next day. We get to know their families.”
When the school recently had a drug awareness week, “we had kids self-reporting. That’s how comfortable kids are with us,” Wilkey said. She was able to direct the students to professional counseling.
Said Sterling, “You have to build a trust with the kids. You are law enforcement, but you are also a mentor. If you don’t have the confidence from the students, then your job as an SRO (school resource officer) is going to be tough. Kids are not going to come in and tell you about another kid who may want to hurt themselves or mom and dad doing drugs.”
Students will also confide about abuse at home, and tell officers about other students having weapons and threats to others in the school.
“The scariest part is the unknown,” Wilkey said. “Is the threat real or not?”
A resource officer in Spokane Public Schools – student population of 28,200 – responds to an average of 20 calls per day and more than 3,500 per academic year, school officials said.
The 12 officers can respond to calls for counseling, weapon reports, tobacco, drug and alcohol incidents, misdemeanor and felony arrests, trespassing and truancy.
An officer in the Coeur d’Alene School District, which is about one-third the size of Spokane Public Schools, responds to an average of seven calls per day.
Mark Howard, Spokane Public Schools security supervisor, said: “A majority of the misdemeanors are marijuana possession. A majority of the felonies are assault, theft and prescription drugs.”
Those trends are consistent throughout Inland Northwest school districts.
Between September 2010 and January 2011, there were 38 felony arrests and 165 misdemeanor arrests in Spokane Public Schools, including middle and elementary schools; there were a total of 39 arrests in the Coeur d’Alene School District. East Valley, West Valley, Central Valley and Mead school districts each had about 50 or fewer total arrests.
The bulk of Spokane’s misdemeanor arrests – 112 – occurred at Rogers High School.
“The numbers are higher partly because there are two officers, so they are able to respond to more calls,” said Jason Conley, Spokane Public Schools’ director of safety, security and transportation. “The other reason is they’re taking a more firm stance at that school.”
By comparison, the calls for counseling students, parents, community members and school employees numbered in the high hundreds and thousands, according to data from several Inland Northwest school districts.
Officers are typically stationed at high schools and middle schools, and respond to elementary schools as needed, but it varies by district.
“Our high schools are about the same size as some small cities (over 1,500 students), and it makes sense to have an officer in that city,” Conley said.
Officers in Spokane Public Schools are district employees, but they are commissioned officers. In East Valley, West Valley, Central Valley, Mead and Coeur d’Alene school districts the resource officers are local police department or sheriff’s office employees who work in the schools during the academic year and rotate back into patrol during the summer.
Either way, the officer’s role is considered vital in the schools by the administration and even the students.
Scott Wortley, a 2011 Lewis and Clark High School graduate, said: “You can tell that the students know when the school resource officer is not there, and they sort of take advantage of it,” causing a little more trouble than usual.
He adds, “Without him (the resource officer), we wouldn’t have the safety for our kids. We wouldn’t have the safety for our school.”