By David Slone
WARSAW — Besides being the first line of defense, the role of school resource officers is broad, but the most important thing is building relationships with the students, Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Doug Light told the County Council Thursday, Aug. 10.
Light’s comments came as part of a request by the KCSO, Warsaw Community Schools and Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation for an additional two school resource officers. Warsaw wants an additional SRO to help put officers into the elementary schools of Leesburg, Madison and Claypool. The other SRO would rotate between Tippecanoe Valley Middle School and Mentone and Akron elementary schools. The sheriff’s office currently has one SRO at Wawasee Middle School and one at Tippecanoe Valley High School, according to Sheriff Jim Smith after the meeting.
In making the presentation to the council Thursday for the two SROs, Smith was joined by Warsaw Superintendent Dr. David Hoffert and Tippecanoe Valley Superintendent Blaine Conley.
Smith said this past spring/early summer, he was approached by Conley about adding a SRO to the Valley school district. When Smith met with Conley, he said he was very candid with him that while he would like to put an officer in every school, he didn’t have the manpower to do so at this time. Conley was aware that staffing could be an issue and he had some monetary avenues he could pull from to financially assist the KCSO with assigning an additional deputy to TVMS, Mentone and Akron elementaries specifically.
Shortly after Smith met with Conley, he also met with Hoffert and they had a similar conversation. Warsaw wanted to add an SRO to its school district for the three elementary schools that are in the KCSO jurisdiction – Leesburg, Madison and Claypool. Like Conley, Hoffert alluded that there would be some additional funds on the school district’s end to partner with the KCSO for the SRO.
“After many meetings, discussions and research, the agreement was made between the KCSO and the two school districts to create a partnership that would entail a four-year term MOU contract for an 80/20 split, a responsibility of the cost for each SRO. This will leave the county to only fund 20% for each SRO,” Smith said. “What this could mean for us is an appropriation for funds to hire two deputies to backfill the two deputies we would promote within our ranks currently at the sheriff’s office for the SRO positions, and as we move forward we would adjust the budget for these increases.”
He said they’ve analyzed the total costs associated with making the increases, and after looking at the wage, benefits, insurance and the cost of a patrol vehicle – along with outfitting the vehicle – the estimated 80% portion that each school corporation would be responsible for is $110,081.97 per year. The 20% portion the county would be responsible for would be $27,521.46 per year for each deputy.
“I feel it’s important to note that outside the 180 days of school, these deputies will get assigned a patrol, traffic details inside the department,” Smith said. This would actually benefit the county because the KCSO’s busiest time is when the kids are out of school.
“I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to continue these partnerships with these two school districts in the community, and for our department to be a positive influence and have great impacts on these kiddos as they go to school every day and keeping them as safe as possible,” Smith stated.
Hoffert said WCS’ biggest needs are safety and security for the kids.
“The world’s changed here in recent years, and as we look at that, that means that safety and security needs to grow. Our biggest area of need is our three outlying schools. They take the longest response time for officers to be able to get to. Geographically speaking, they are the hardest to get to,” Hoffert stated.
As Warsaw Schools looked over its demographics the last few years, Hoffert said the three schools that are within the county’s jurisdiction are the biggest need. Currently, off-duty officers do rotations throughout those schools, but those officers aren’t able to create long-lasting relationships with students because it’s different people every day at different times throughout the day.
Hoffert said they understood it was not only a financial investment by WCS but the county as well. “But once again, I can’t stress enough how important the safety and security of the kids truly is,” he concluded.
Conley said Tippecanoe Valley’s main campus is five miles south of Mentone and five miles north of Akron, surrounded by cornfields and “that’s the way we like it.” However, the response time of officers is an issue for them, too. There is an SRO at the high school, but there are times when he gets pulled to another school.
“Having coverage on our main campus is something that we really feel is important,” Conley said. “We would also like to bring back the DARE program for elementary schools. It’s been several years since that program has been in place, and we’d look at this opportunity with some funding from the state, in terms of grant funding, and I think both of us were committed to fund these positions.”
Councilwoman Kimberly Cates asked what would happen after the four-year commitment.
Smith said they probably could have gone longer on the commitment if they felt the need to. “I talked to both superintendents. They felt very confident that this funding will continue, but it’s going to be incumbent on us as leadership in the sheriff’s office to maintain a positive relationship and continously meeting with them,” he said.
Smith said Light, a longtime SRO, will be his pointman for the department to oversee the SROs.
He said when they get to the 2-1/2-year mark, they’ll have more conversations with the superintendents on the SROs. If the money were to dry up for any reason, Smith said they would have to adjust accordingly.
Cates asked the superintendents if they thought the state/federal governments would be willing to fund SROs for the long term.
“The state started their school safety program grant funding after Columbine, so they have been dedicated to this for several decades now. So I think it will continue,” Conley responded.
The Columbine High School massacre was a school shooting and attempted bombing that occurred on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colo. The perpetrators, 12th-grade students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered 12 students and one teacher. Harris and Klebold subsequently committed suicide.
Councilman Tony Ciriello, who was the first DARE officer for the county, told Conley he admired Conley’s desire to bring the DARE program back. Ciriello said it was very positive what Conley and Hoffert were willing to do.
Hoffert said WCS’ funding will be a little bit different because the new SRO will be their fifth. The other four are with the city of Warsaw. “We’re going to be transferring from some of our rotations that were going to those three schools, so, again, we believe that this is a priority.”
Cates asked where the other SROs serve WCS currently. Hoffert said currently there are two full-time at the high school and one at each of the two middle schools. The DARE program is in each elementary school, provided by the middle school DARE officers. There also are rotations at each of the eight elementary schools.
“We’ll be changing up that rotation and looking at some of those because we won’t need that as much if a full-time SRO is granted,” Hoffert said.
Councilwoman Kathleen Groninger asked what the duties of an SRO were.
“Eighteen of my 28 years in law enforcement, most of those years I worked with Dr. Hoffert and Warsaw Schools as an SRO, and I’m in a great place … and it’s my time to be a mentor for these maybe these younger officers that have a passion to be an SRO,” Light said.
He said being an SRO is “probably one of the most rewarding jobs that you can have in law enforcement.” The role of a SRO is “so broad,” he said, as is the role of a DARE officer. “The number one thing is relationships with the kids, hands down. That is the most important thing, is building relationships. If you’re going to deter anything at school, it’s because you had a relationship with a student.”
Light said an SRO is always evaluating the campus, looking at traffic flow and everything else. “You’re building your program within your school. You’re collaborating with principals and admins and superintendents. You’re part of the safety committee, you’re part of the safety team. You attend advanced training and bring that stuff back to the corporation on the current practices that are going on in the school resource world.”
He said he admired Hoffert and Conley and their vision and what they’re doing with school safety.
“SROs are not going away. The demand is just going to get bigger and bigger because that’s the way it’s trending,” Light said.
Councilwoman Joni Truex made a motion to approve the additional two SROs and Cates seconded the motion.
Councilwoman Sue Ann Mitchell asked when the SROs would be implemented, and Smith said as soon as possible. Mitchell said the council will have to approve an additional appropriation, which they wouldn’t be able to do until September. The additional appropriation would be for about $275,200 because the school districts would have to pay the county and the county then would write the paychecks.
Councilman Dave Wolkins recalled the late Officer Terry Polston and how his relationship with the kids was “absolutely priceless” and continued beyond the kids’ time in school. He said he supported the request, too.
The council approved the motion 7-0.