Districts see need for school resource officer as 'unfortunately ... a sign of the times'

Districts see need for school resource officer as 'unfortunately ... a sign of the times'

After every early dismissal this year, Rossville-Alvin Elementary teachers and staff will spend 15 minutes discussing school safety.

And for the first time, a full-time school resource officer will be among their ranks.

"It's just a sign of the times we live in," said Crystal Johnson, superintendent of the 320-student pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade district along Illinois 1 in small-town Rossville (pop. 1,200), where the school board decided earlier this summer to hire a village police officer.

"We don't feel any immediate threat here. ... But we are also not going to sit back and wait," Johnson said. "We want to be a leader."

Police Chief Chris Kelnhofer hopes to fill the position before the start of school later this month.

"With the age of our kids, last year there were no problems that really needed police involvement, but it's always good to be proactive instead of reactive," Kelnhofer said. "I'd rather have somebody there and something happen than not."

While the area's more urban school districts — Champaign, Urbana, Danville and Rantoul — have had SROs for years, smaller districts across East Central Illinois are starting to take steps to add officers.

At least seven area districts — including Mahomet-Seymour, Monticello, Villa Grove and Piatt County's four public districts — will have sworn police officers walking their school hallways for the first time this school year, with officials all citing safety concerns as the chief reason for taking the step.

 

MAHOMET CHIEF: 'Opportunity to respond much quicker to any event'

Even districts whose entire student body fits in one building feel compelled to have a police officer in their midst.

While February's massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., prompted student walkouts and calls for action nationwide, other incidents closer to home reinforced the fear that a shooting could happen anywhere.

Last September, a 14-year-old Mattoon High student was subdued by math/PE teacher Angela McQueen when he attempted to open fire in the cafeteria.

In mid-May, a 19-year-old student recently kicked off the football team at Dixon High in northern Illinois allegedly fired shots in the school hallway as students and staff were meeting for graduation rehearsal. An SRO shot, wounded, then arrested the student.

Nine days later in Noblesville, Ind., middle school science teacher and former Mahomet-Seymour football star Jason Seaman was hailed as a hero after he and a 13-year-old girl were shot by a student.

"This increased frequency of some of these terrible occurrences has made protection of our students a Villa Grove school board and community priority," said Villa Grove Superintendent Norm Tracy. "With today's technology and social media, more cases of concerns developed in Illinois school districts last year than ever before."

Villa Grove Police Chief Dennis Gire said it's a proactive approach now.

"And I think every other school district should be that way," said Gire, explaining that in an emergency during school hours, he would be the lone officer responding. While Gire could get there quickly, backup from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office and state police would depend on their locations, he said. "You don't know how long it would take."

Like Villa Grove, it was as much a community priority as a school district one to get an SRO in Mahomet-Seymour schools this year.

Mahomet Police Chief Mike Metzler, a retired Urbana officer who experienced the value of an SRO in that city's schools, said he has wanted one in Mahomet for years.

"Having another trained, armed officer in the schools gives us the opportunity to respond much quicker to any event ... provided the officer's in the building at the time," Metzler said. "Our concerns only grew as we started to see these events happening elsewhere."

 

ST. JOSEPH-OGDEN SRO: 'Protect those kids like they're your own'

Champaign County Sheriff's Deputy Alicia Maxey is starting her 19th year as an SRO at St. Joseph-Ogden High and the two nearby elementary districts, St. Joseph and Prarieview-Ogden.

Her position, and that of another SRO at Tolono Unity, came to be because of a grant through the sheriff's office the year after what was at the time the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history — the 1999 massacre at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo.

You can't measure prevention, Maxey says, but she is certain that SROs make a difference.

"Having a squad car in front of the building and an officer in the building has got to deter something — it has to," she said.

As a rookie police officer, Maxey never imagined she'd be teaching kids as part of the job, but she has come to enjoy that aspect, whether it's providing tips on bus safety or reviewing the widely taught ALICE training program, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.

"But the best part of it is being able to interact with the kids on a positive note," Maxey said, explaining that an SRO must have a rapport with the students. "They have to see you as a real person and not just a person in a polyester uniform. ... All of that aside, when the rubber hits the road, you have to be ready to protect those kids like they're your own."

Metzler said one of the side benefits of having SROs in schools is that they can handle any issue that would normally require response from a patrol officer — minor thefts, fights and the like.

But, "I think it's a great idea for kids to see officers at some point other than when there's something bad going on," said Metzler, who encourages all of his officers to get out of their squad cars and into the Mahomet-Seymour school buildings to walk the halls and talk to students.

 

PIATT COUNTY: Four districts to split $50,000 annual cost of two-year deal

The cost of employing a police officer varies by the district.

The nine months that the new SRO spends at Mahomet-Seymour will be funded by the district. That amounts to $75,163.65 of $104,218.20 in salary and benefits.

In Champaign, Unit 4's arrangement with the police department calls for the district to foot the bill for two SROs while the city pays for the other three.

In this area, Piatt County schools have the most unique arrangement.

After the Parkland, Fla., shooting, Monticello Superintendent Vic Zimmerman said he and his school board talked about ways to improve school security, covering everything from student uniforms and student IDs to metal detectors and SROs.

But finding room in an already-tight budget for another full-time salary became an issue. So Zimmerman reached out to the county's other districts — Bement, Cerro Gordo and DeLand-Weldon — with a proposal.

For the short term, anyway, they could share an SRO and the costs that come with it.

The Piatt County Board and four school districts each approved an intergovernmental agreement this summer to make it happen.

The sheriff's office will share the costs of one of its deputies spending the nine-month school year floating among Monticello's school buildings two days a week and spending one day each in the Bement, Cerro Gordo and DeLand-Weldon districts.

The four districts will divvy up the deputy's salary for the nine months of the school year — about $50,000 of $67,153, with Monticello paying $20,000 and the other, smaller districts contributing $10,000 each.

"This is a brand new thing for both the sheriff's department and the school district, so we thought dipping our toe in the water would be a good way to go," said Zimmerman, who explained that the current agreement is for two years. After that, the districts can re-evaluate the arrangement.

 

WESTVILLE SUPERINTENDENT: Help wanted from state legislators

In Vermilion County, Westville Superintendent Seth Miller would like to add an SRO, and he's put thought into exploring ways to make it more affordable for smaller, rural districts.

One idea that he said he has suggested to local state legislators: Dedicate revenue from a 1 percent county sales tax to paying for an SRO. While Champaign County has a 1 percent school sales tax, the measure failed at the polls in Vermilion County earlier this year.

Still, Miller anticipates it finding its way to a future ballot.

"To me, one of the safest ways we can enhance (school) safety is a trained law enforcement professional," he said.

Maxey said she isn't surprised so many districts are joining the push to add police in school buildings.

"I think, unfortunately, it's a sign of the times," she said. "That's the way our society is shifting, and if that's what we need to do to protect our kids, then that's what we need to do."

 

WHAT IT COSTS

It’s not cheap to have law enforcement officers work high school beats. Here’s what area school districts pay annually:

School district: Number of SROs — annual cost to district
Bement: 1 part-time Piatt Co. deputy (1 day/wk) — $10,000
Cerro Gordo: 1 part-time Piatt Co. deputy (1 day/wk) — $10,000
Champaign: 5 Champaign police officers — $305,404
Danville: 4 Danville police officers — $300,000*
DeLand-Weldon: 1 part-time Piatt Co. deputy (1 day/wk) — $10,000
Monticello: 1 part-time Piatt Co. deputy (2 days/wk) — $20,000
PV-O, SJ-O districts: 1 Champaign Co. sheriff’s deputy — $56,306
Rantoul city schools: 1 Rantoul police officer — $64,089
Rantoul Township High: 1 Rantoul police officer — $58,605
Tolono Unity: 1 Champaign Co. sheriff’s deputy — $56,306
Urbana: 1 Urbana police officer — Funded entirely by UPD
Villa Grove: 1 Villa Grove police officer — $15,000

* Danville’s figure if based on last year’s total cost of $150,000 for two officers. This year’s total for four officers has not yet been determined, according to district officials, because officers are still being assigned and exact costs will depend on salaries and benefits of each officer.
 

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