17 FEBRUARY 2003


LA: Officers to help provide safe school environment

Some Rapides Parish middle schools, such as Alexandria Magnet, are using an anonymous system of buddy boxes, where pupils may report problems with drugs or bullies confidentially.

When the school bell rings next fall, some students walking to their first class of the new school year will notice a fresh face in the crowded halls: a school-resource officer. Rapides Parish Sheriff William Earl Hilton hopes to have 25 officers ready for the fall and maybe more later in the 2003-04 school year. Preparing to implement the program, Hilton and seven members of his staff, along with Rapides Parish School Superintendent Patsy Jenkins, attended a recent national school-safety conference in Tennessee.

The conference, "A Community Oriented Approach to School Safety: What Works", attracted more than 500 visitors to Nashville from throughout the country. School-safety seminars and roundtables were put on by educators and all law-enforcement branches, including the FBI.

The Rapides Parish group learned about school safety issues like terrorism, bullies, drugs and school-resource officers, or SROs.

After meeting students, officers and school administrators from all over, Jenkins and Hilton came away with new ideas and ways to implement a program that will place a deputy in every public and private school in the parish. There is no set timeframe for 100 percent implementation of the program.

Maj. Mike Slocum realized at the conference that the parish had been on target with its plans for school-resource officers. "We knew we wanted to provide a safe environment for students and teachers," he said. "This conference showed we were not far off target." After hearing testimonies from other districts with SROs, Jenkins said Rapides Parish already has ironed out many of the kinks other districts faced, like funding and cooperation between police and school officials. "Those are not hurdles we are going to have to climb over," she said. "The key to it all is that the sheriff's department and the school system have a very positive working relationship." She added, "If anything, this conference made me feel confident with the steps we've already taken."

The SRO program was announced last year as one of several promises from Hilton and his employees if the public supported a half-cent sales-tax increase estimated to bring an additional $8.8 million to the Sheriff's Office budget. School administrators will decide where to place the first SROs, Hilton said. Odds are, those SROs will first be in the middle schools, where most discipline problems occur, Jenkins said.

The Ideal SRO
Hilton has two and a half notebook pages full of people interested in a job at the Sheriff's Office. About eight to 10 applicants are interested in the SRO positions.
Hilton wants those applicants to have at least three years of law-enforcement experience, be certified in Police Officer Standardized Training, and have high moral values. SRO officers should be role models and should have to act as a role model in and outside the school, he said.
Tommy Smith, education director for the sheriff's boot camp, said the worst thing for the program would be to have an officer who smokes or drinks in front of students outside a school setting.
In addition, applicants must be dedicated, since they also will work security for after-school activities.
"We want this officer to be a part of the school," Hilton said. "He or she will be doing more than just sitting at the school or patrolling the halls."
Hiring the SROs likely will be a joint effort between the Sheriff's Office and the school system, Jenkins said.
"It's going to be a very careful screening process," she said.

Communication key
One message emphasized at the national conference is communication. Lt. Randall Bordelon said the SRO is like a community police officer. In talking with other officers and schools that implemented a program, he learned an SRO program would not be effective if unaccepted by the community, school, students and parents.
"Successful programs involved an entire community," Randall said. "Helping and teaching a child does not end when they leave the classroom."
Hilton knew his staff would have to sell the SRO program to school faculty, students and parents. Teachers should know the officer is not there to take their jobs, and all should know that the officer is at the school to provide a safe environment and help with problems, Hilton said.
Teachers and the officer must work together to communicate possible problems and find solutions, he said.

Officer roles
Deputy Travis Davidson said the officer must serve several roles such as a law-enforcement officer, counselor and, sometimes, teacher. Students must feel comfortable enough to talk with the officers or let those officers know when something is wrong among the students, he said.
During class transitions, officers likely will patrol school "hot spots" and areas of congestion, Jenkins said. The rest of the day, officers will advise students and teach classes on things such as youth law and conflict resolution. SROs will cater to their schools. Urban students may learn street smarts, while rural schools may get lessons in hunting safety, she said.
Also, officers will train teachers on such things as the signs of drug use and uncontrolled anger.

Crisis control
Since 1974, there have been 37 school shootings with 41 attackers in 26 states, according to a report from the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education.
Debbie Hickman of the Sheriff's Office said in each case someone knew prior to the attack that it would happen. Students were too scared to speak up, or teachers and community members did not take the threat seriously.

A school's SRO must be attentive to such warning signs.
Statistics always will emphasize how many shootings occurred, but not how many were avoided by officers, students and teachers speaking up, Lt. Clay Brister said.
At the conference, the group learned about various ways the SRO will help in a school crisis, possibly reducing the number of injuries. The officer will coordinate communication between school and law enforcement.
Also, each SRO will have some special SWAT training and know each school's evacuation procedure. Officers should be trained in about six weeks.

Combating drugs, bullying
The Rapides Parish posse learned about much more than school-resource officers at the Nashville conference. They also learned about drugs, crisis plans, school violence and bullying.
Bullying is one of the leading causes of a child becoming a violent offender on campus, Hilton said.
Statistics show that boys are more likely to bully than girls. Girls who bully are more likely to use intimidation tactics over violence.
Bullying occurs most often in middle schools, and 60 percent of middle-school bullies go on to have arrest records.
At the conference, Jenkins learned about a student bullying program, modeled after the DARE drug program, that she wants to implement.
The knowledge children have today is a factor of the increased violence, Slocum said. It is amazing how children can log on to the Internet and access instructions to make a bomb, he said.
Debbie Hickman of the Sheriff's Office added that parents must be careful what information their children access online.

Drugs continue to be a problem plaguing schools. Ecstasy and crystal methamphetamine are the drugs students favor, Slocum said.
The Rapides Parish schools system has implemented a program where a private company does trace detection and operates a Web site where students can provide information. Deputy Travis Davidson said that program will be another tool the SRO can use to help the school.

School-crisis programs also were a topic at the conference.
Jenkins said Rapides Parish schools have a solid crisis plan, When Lighting Strikes. However, she did learn the importance of school evacuation plans in case of a chemical leak from bioterrorism or a local plant disaster.
Some middle schools received "buddy boxes" earlier this month, another concept Jenkins learned at the conference.
Pupils may put drug tips or bullying complaints in the buddy boxes, which are discreetly placed on campus to take the intimidation out of reporting such things.
"Not next to the principal's office," Jenkins said.
Many who get in trouble for having small knives at school claim they forgot to take it out of their backpack after a hunting trip, or similar reasons, she added.
"If they remember that they have the knife at school, we can give those honest students another chance by letting them just drop that knife in the buddy box," she said.

Only SROs or central office staff will open the buddy boxes to ensure confidentiality to pupils who drop off knives or offer tips.
 By Mandy M. Goodnight, Emily Peters and Julie Bennett

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