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More Than 'Campus Cops'

School resource officers are also role models for students and staff

By John Rosales

Michael Houston is a School Resource Officer at Loftis Middle School in Hixson, Tennessee.   Unlike many other school resource offiers, he doesn’t work directly for the school district. Houston is employed by the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department as a member of a select group of specially-trained, veteran law enforcement officers assigned to a school full time.

“The school is my beat,” says Houston, 37. “I consider the students to be like my children – all 902 of them.”

As a certified police officer, Houston has the same uniform, badge, weapons and arrest powers as other law enforcement officers.   He even works as a patrol officer during the summer break, “to keep up with the streets, stay fresh,” he says.

Typically, Houston responds to law violations or safety-related incidents at school and the nearby neighborhood.   He drives a fully-equipped “marked unit” and carries handcuffs, Mace, expandable baton, two radios and a gun.

“My belt is pretty much full,” he says. “I get questions about the gun (from students) on a daily basis. And no, I have never shot anyone or been shot.”  

And the two radios?

“One is for the school and the other is for the sheriff’s department,” he says. Houston is allowed by school officials to answer neighborhood calls, especially if a juvenile is involved.

“If there is nothing going on at school, I will go out and assist another officer,” he says. “If it’s one of my students, they might want to see a familiar face.”

School Resource Officers are taught to be accessible and familiar to students so when an emergency occurs, a bond has been set.

“We’re taught to establish a rapport with students,” he says. “The more friends I make, the more I will be informed about what is happening at school.”   The SRO program is patterned after the Triad-plus Concept of law enforcer- instructor- advisor, with the concept of being a role model at the center.  

   There are 20 SROs based at 18 Hamilton County schools, plus three supervisors assigned to headquarters. At Loftis, Houston works alone, usually arriving an hour before his official starting time of 7 a.m. and staying past his last bell at 3 p.m.

“I like to check my e-mail and get caught up on paperwork before students arrive (about 6:45 a.m.),” he says.

The SRO’s mission is to be a visible presence on campus to deter, prevent, and respond to crime. They also advise school officials on law-related matters, help assess school safety needs, and serves as a link to other emergency personnel during crisis incidents.

“We’re not just campus cops,” says Houston, a 10-year police veteran. “I give lectures on anything law-enforcement related.   I talk with kids about personal issues, like an abusive situation at home.”

In the classroom, SROs serves as guest instructors, teaching law-related and safety-related topics which are relevant to the school's learning goals. As advisors, they serve in an informal capacity as a conflict mediator to students.

“I work under confidentiality,” he says. “I enjoy coming in and talking with the kids about anything on their minds -- skateboarding, video games, sports.” 

Houston also speaks to students about bullying and aggression, dating violence, driving safety, fingerprint evidence, Internet safety, search and seizure laws, and sex crimes.  He uses some lectures not only to educate students, but also to inform them of their rights as potential victims of a crime.

“We need to know if a child is being harmed or abused in any way,” he says. “If a kid talks with a teacher or me about home child abuse, the first person who hears about it is obligated by law to report it.”

While Houston fills many roles at school, he is not a classroom or administrative disciplinarian. School-related discipline for misbehavior or rule violations are left to school officials.

Houston has worked at Loftis since 2000, though spent the 2006-07 school year at nearby Central High School, where he sometimes wore the county's alternate uniform. It is known as the "soft" uniform and consists of a navy blue, embroidered golf shirt and khaki pants.   This type of uniform is more suitable to the school environment and helps students see SROs as more approachable, he says.

“I want them to talk to me,” Houston adds. “They keep me young.”

Staying Aware of Crisis Situations

The 11-year-old girl was so upset that she stormed out of her classroom, flew down a flight of stairs and right out the door.

“I saw her leave and got her to come back inside,” says Laura Vernon, school safety assistant at Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts in Milwaukee. Vernon then called the student’s mother and put the phone in her trembling hands.

“They spoke and she calmed down, and returned to class,” Vernon says. “It’s dangerous to leave school and not tell anyone. I’m just glad I was in the hallway and saw her leave.”

After 32 years of school employment, Vernon has developed a knack for catching mischievous students, like when a gregarious eighth-grader was sliding on the polished counter of a science lab.

“Not once or twice, but three times,” she says. “He didn’t see me, but I saw him. We spend most of our time in the halls or responding to calls of misbehavior in class.”

Vernon  is one of three security officers who work fulltime at Roosevelt keeping the peace among the school’s 850 sixth-to eighth-graders. Each officer works on one of the school’s three different floors. Their 40-hour week sometimes includes training days.

“We constantly receive training to stay aware of crisis situations,” she says.

Vernon ’s day starts as several dozen students begin to trickle in at 7:30 a.m., making a beeline to the cafeteria. They are hungry, groggy and unlikely to cause mischief as participants in the school’s free breakfast program.

“We’re an art school,” she says. “Some of them take that time to practice their instruments.”

At first bell, about 8:40 a.m., Vernon is walking the halls, radio in hand. Roosevelt ’s security guards do not carry handcuffs or pepper spray or anything else.

“It’s just us and being able to talk real good,” Vernon says. “We have radios to communicate with each other.”

Vernon  started work at schools in 1976 as an educational assistant for transitional students from kindergarten to first grade. She then trained to become a hall supervisor in middle schools. Though fashions and trends come and go, Vernon says one thing has not changed among middle schoolers. 

“They sometimes have to be convinced that education should be their priority,” she says. “They have too many distractions.”

Because some students “don’t stay on task in class,” Vernon spends a lot of her time talking about the importance of studying and getting good grades.

“We (security officers) spend a lot of time talking to children about education,” she says.

Though they might lose focus in class, most students at Roosevelt don’t fight, curse or steal.

“We haven’t seen a whole lot of that,” she says. “Our biggest issue is with theft and vandalism that comes from outside of school.”

It’s tempting for outsiders to deface some of the public sculpture dotting the grounds, Vernon    says. Inside, however, the school’s dance studio, orchestra room and art gallery are points of pride for students and go untouched. 

“If a violin is set down somewhere, no one runs off with it,” Vernon says. “Someone turns it in.”

This stellar behavior might be a good reflection on parents, teachers, ESPs and other role models, but even the best students sometimes stray. At those times, Vernon has the freedom to call the ultimate disciplinarian.

“If I see a child acting out or doing something inappropriate, I will call the parent before it gets to the administrative level,” Vernon says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the parent appreciates the call. Administrators appreciate it too.”

At certain “it-hurts-me-more” moments, Vernon has to write-up a student for an infraction, usually involving “being sassy with teachers.”

Students usually try to “save face with their peers,” she says. “And it gets them in trouble.”

Carrying a cell phone to school without permission is a breach of school policy, unless the student has a medical reason for needing the device. To enforce the rule, the school has security monitoring systems, including a policy which encourages surprise scans to check for weapons or unauthorized cell phones.

“If we find a phone, it’s taken and given to the parent,” she says.

Vernon  says her job is primarily about one thing: safety.

“We try real hard to assure that the children and staff are safe in the building,” she says. “In the past, people may not have thought that a security guard was necessary at a school. Due to some incidents, everybody knows you need trained personnel to do this job.”    

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