April 11, 2006 > School Resource Officers
School Resource Officers
by Vidya Pradhan
At first glance, Officer Rick Jones is intimidating. He carries a pistol, baton, handcuffs, extra ammo and a taser. But a closer look reveals a fatherly figure, sympathetic and understanding of the kids on his beat at Washington High School in Fremont.
Officer Jones is a School Resource Officer (SRO) of the Fremont Police Department, assigned fulltime to Washington High as a problem solver and resource. While his responsibilities include investigating crimes on campus and maintaining security at school events, he sees himself primarily as a positive influence and role model to help guide kids safely through the pressures and stresses of four years of high school.
Teenage years are the time for kids to test the limits of authority and discipline; school policies are extremely strict with respect to behavior. Bringing alcohol or drugs on campus or getting into fights results in a five-day suspension in some high schools. Having weapons on campus leads to immediate expulsion. The zero-tolerance policy followed by schools makes the SROs job even more important.
Every year, Officer Jones addresses the freshman class about the importance of staying out of trouble. When he gets information about a possible clash on campus he brings the relevant parties to his office and helps them talk it out, thus averting a situation well before it has had a chance to occur. His office is a safe zone, where kids are encouraged to say whatever they want, with the only two conditions being that they respect the other person and refrain from physical action. Many fights after school hours have been prevented by the simple expedient of Officer Jones showing up in his car, waving and cheerfully smiling at the troublemakers.
The School Resource Officers Program was started in the school year of 1995-1996 in response to a gang fight and stabbing at American High. At first a couple of police officers were assigned to the campus. Gradually the program was expanded to encompass all high and middle schools in the district. The program is a joint partnership with the schools with the latter bearing up to half of the officers' salary. SROs undergo a special two-week training program and keep up with all regular police officer training as well. But, the first prerequisite for an SRO is to enjoy working with kids and understand what they are going through during this time of their life.
Before the SRO program was initiated, the only recourse for schools with a problem on campus was to call a beat cop from duties on the street. This approach had two serious disadvantages; an officer would arrive after the situation was out of control and he or she was unfamiliar with the students and environment, not in a good position to make an informed judgment about the best course of action.
Sergeant Russell is the supervising officer for Fremont SROs, one of the first at Irvington High. He is enthusiastic about the program, having personally seen how much it benefits the kids. "The SRO program is not about arresting kids for getting into trouble. SROs are also role models, counselors, surrogate fathers. For the most part it is developing relationships with the kids that go far beyond their school years. They are as much a part of the students' life as are their friends and family." He adds, "Parents see us as a resource. When the parents lack answers, whether it has to do with drugs, gangs or technology, like the website myspace.com, parents come to talk to the SROs. It is an opportunity for the officer and the parents to work as a team."
School administrators have told Sergeant Russell, "We don't know how we would survive without you [SROs]." They work together to handle disciplinary issues. SROs meet weekly to discuss high school activity and resolve crossover issues. In situations when a student of one high school shows up at another to incite trouble, SROs meet to deal with the matter.
Due to budget cuts in Fremont, SROs can only be found at that city's high schools. The D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program in elementary schools has also been eliminated so the first exposure kids have to a uniformed police officer on campus is the day they enter high school. Lucy Gorman, a senior at American High, remembers the shock she felt her first day as a freshman. "I thought there was something wrong with the school when I saw the police officer. I thought some unfortunate incident had taken place." Over the years, she has found comfort in the presence of the SRO. "I feel like he is on top of things that happen on campus. Kids often go to his office to discuss their problems and he always seems to know when a fight may break out and is there to prevent any escalation."
At Washington High, Officer Jones' office is full of pictures of former students. He has attended their graduations, weddings and even celebrated the birth of their children. In the last seven years on campus, he has used handcuffs only six or seven times. Working at a school of about 2,200 students, he is justifiably proud of this record.
"It is hard to provide statistics for what this program is worth," says Sergeant Russell. "The success of the SRO lies in not what happens, but what doesn't." The low incidence of crime on Fremont high school campuses reflects the stellar work of SROs. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed by students. When Sergeant Russell addressed the freshmen at Irvington High as one of the first SROs in 1995, he was booed. Five years later, when leaving, he received a standing ovation.
Relatively new to Milpitas, starting five years ago, SROs are sworn police officers with additional specialized training, located on both high school and middle school campuses. They serve for three years then rotate out of the program. One SRO oversees both middle schools. An SRO visits the community day school once a week, or as needed and the continuation school has an SRO assigned during lunch and after school.
SROs at Milpitas high schools teach police science, a hands-on course that also covers drug use, similar to the D.A.R.E. program. In middle schools SROs teach the D.A.R.E. program, in operation for 20 years. Both offer parent education nights. The elementary schools also provide a D.A.R.E. program.
"The program is very valuable to the district," said Henry Robinson who is the At Risk Program Specialist for the district. These programs are funded by the Milpitas Police Department. "It's a partnership with the police. The investment that they are making in time will pay huge dividends in prevention and education and provides a safe environment for staff and students." Robinson added, "I think they [students] love having them, they see them in a different light. They see them as a staff member."
Robinson splits his time between two offices, one at the district and the other at the police department. "In my position as a school district employee I am probably the only person in Santa Clara County who has an office at the police department. It shows two public agencies working together as a partnership. By me being here I see the SROs and the D.A.R.E. officers every day."
In Hayward, six Hayward Police Officers are assigned as full-time SROs to 13 Hayward area high school and middle school campuses. They work closely with school principals and vice principals to assist with student behavior problems. SROs work collaboratively with other community members including the School Attendance Review Board, District Discipline Hearing Committee and the Petty Theft Workshop.
Officer Allen Chan is the School Resource Officer for Newark Memorial High School. Now in his seventh year, he strictly enforces the rules and says his presence deters non-students from entering Newark's closed campus.
In addition to D.A.R.E., taught in elementary schools by Officer John Boga, Newark also offers G.R.E.A.T. (Gang Resistance Education and Training) at junior high and high schools. This program coaches students on gang resistance, and is taught in the two schools by Officer Nick Mavarakis.
In Union City, two officers are assigned to James Logan High School. Current School Resource Officers are Steve Marshall and Steve Antes.