Policing our schools: Urbana's Cory Koker
Urbana school resource officer Cory Koker is charged with patrolling all nine public schools, with a focus on the middle and high schools. In his four-day, 40-hour workweek, Koker has a mass of responsibility. News-Gazette reporter Amy F. Reiter and photographer Robin Scholz tailed him on Wednesday to find out just how much.
7:30 a.m.: Koker, 31, starts work at the Urbana Police Department on Vine Street. His first order of business: reviewing juvenile case files.
Koker's other duties with the Urbana police include investigating a caseload of crimes, mostly those committed by juvenile offenders.
9:45 a.m.: Koker drives his unmarked car to Urbana Middle School. Once there, the tall, brown-haired man first checks on a case involving a fire alarm pulled the day before.
He chats with school administrators and disciplinarians around the school to see "if there's any issues that we can put our attention to."
One of Koker's frequent stops is the school's Refocus Room, which serves as a kind of detention center for students with in-school suspension or other disciplinary trouble.
"When things get a little rough, we like to have him around," says Gradis Upshaw, one of the monitors.
Walking from classrooms to offices around the building, Koker watches the hallways, asking monitors about student activity. Many students recognize him, waving and yelling "Hi, Cory!" or "Hi, Officer Koker!"
"The two nicer things I get called," he laughs.
One middle schooler asks him for $5 for a date. Koker declines, smiling at the request and showing the student his empty wallet.
"Some of the things that they do or say, it cracks you up," Koker said earlier that day. Students are learning "who they are (and) ... what they can get away with."
11 a.m.: Koker meets with students who are friends with the suspect of the fire alarm case. He begins interviews by telling the teens they are not in trouble, not wanting the students to freak out after they find they've been called from class to talk to a police officer.
"Do you understand why it's a serious situation?" he asks. "People believed that there was a fire."
UMS dean Patrick Russell says Koker's method helps students feel comfortable talking and asking questions.
"He's not a real aggressive 'Terminator' kind of guy," Russell says.
"But I could be," Koker responds.
11:50 a.m.: Driving to lunch, Koker spots three high school students hanging out on the property of the former Sunshine Grocery, now empty. He stops them and takes their names.
Two are skipping class, and a third is too young to leave school property during lunch. Koker sees that they start walking to school, then calls the school to let attendance staff know of the infraction.
Noon: Lunch is Korean food on the University of Illinois campus. Koker said the hour away from the schools, patrol or office is a rarity. Often he'll just grab a sub from Jimmy John's and eat it on the way back to the schools.
12:50 p.m.: Same drill in the high school – Koker talks to administrators, staff, teachers and students, asking for updates from adults and making small talk with some of the youngsters.
Urbana High Principal John Woodward says he appreciates Koker's time but would love more of it.
"We'd like to have Officer Koker full time," Woodward says. "Patrol doesn't have the same relationship with the kids."
Sophomore Brianna Hall said she is glad he's around.
"He's a really nice person and he works really well with us," she says.
1:45 p.m.: A quick trip back to the office to file some paperwork. "Cory's buried in investigations and paperwork," says his boss, Lt. Mike Metzler. "He has no down time at all."
2:15 p.m.: Koker heads back to the high school for dismissal. As he's driving, a call comes for help with a student refusing to leave school property. Koker predicts that in the minute it will take him to arrive, the girl will either become emotional or just leave as soon as she hears he's coming. It's the latter.
"My presence, I think, deters the kids from anything that they want to do that they shouldn't," Koker says. "A lot of the times, the kids leave when they hear I'm coming."
2:25 p.m.: The six-year veteran of the Urbana police department drives around the periphery of the school, making sure students walking home aren't getting into trouble. At Carle Park, he asks two young women to get off the roof of the pavilion. They comply, looking disgruntled.
2:40 p.m.: Koker parks in front of the Domino's Pizza near to the Urbana Middle School. He watches a group of students hanging out by the building, sees that they're not being disruptive, then crosses the street to patrol outside the school as students are dismissed.
Within a few minutes, the majority have dispersed, hopping into buses or cars or walking home. About 20 students are outside the Domino's, and Coker watches them. One starts pushing another, with laughter from the group surrounding them. Koker strides across the street at the first push and calms the situation. He talks to a student who knows him by name, and quickly the crowd dwindles to a couple of teens waiting for pizza.
"I can't afford not to be realistic and practical with the kids," he says of his approach. "I tell them their options and let them decide what to do."
3 p.m.: Koker drives around the neighborhoods adjacent to the middle school.
3:30 p.m.: With school over, it's time for more paperwork at the office. Koker also meets with a family member of the student who admits to pulling the fire alarm, and they decide on a course of action. He takes the student to the detention center for photos.
6 p.m.: After what he says is a rare slow day, Koker heads for his home in Champaign. He's been a school resource officer and investigator for a year and a half, and he's exhausted with the responsibilities. He's asked to return to the streets.
He'll finish his school position in June.