Sheriff’s Office stands by school resource officers despite national concerns
FRISCO — Area students are set to head back to school next week, and school resource officers are ready to join them.
Amid ongoing national conversations surrounding the role of police in schools, officials with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office say their resource officers provide much more than just an added layer of safety for students.
“The sheriff of Pitkin County was recently quoted as saying ‘it’s a feel-good thing to have a gun in school’ and that its just there to make parents and teachers feel better,” said Sgt. Jake Straw, who oversees the school resource officer program in Summit County. “If there’s one thing that our program is not, it’s that.
“We are blessed to have two resources officers that want to be there, and that want to spend time having a positive influence on kids’ lives. Of course there is a safety component, and they’re happy to fill that gap when needed. But for the most part what our officers do isn’t law enforcement, its fostering relationships with students and staff.”
Widespread debates around policing following the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent reemergence of the Black Lives Matter protests have crept down into whether or not having police officers in schools is a good idea.
In June, the Denver Public School Board voted unanimously to end its contract with the Denver Police Department and phase out school resource officer programs. In a release penned by Superintendent Susana Cordova, she noted the action was taken in “response to the outcry of pain and distrust we have heard about the presence of police in our schools, especially from our African American and Black community,” and noted a need to end the “school-to-prison” pipeline.
Other school districts around the country have taken similar stances, including in Portland, Oakland, Columbus and Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed.
Conversations around the role of school resource officers will begin here in Summit County in the near future, according to Summit School District Superintendent Marion Smith Jr.
Smith, who just took over as superintendent in July, said that while the topic has come up locally he’s been more focused on making sure schools are safe to reopen amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But he noted that the school board has expressed an interest in reviewing school policies around police practices and engaging the community to identify if changes are needed.
“My experiences have been that school resource officers were there to build relationships and community with the students and scholars in the building,” Smith said, looking back over his former roles in Seattle and Philadelphia. “…There hadn’t been those larger conversations around if it was negative or positive, but rather if they were meeting the needs at that particular time.
“The catalyst really has been the national conversation, and people are being reactionary to what they may be seeing or hearing. It’s critically important for us to focus on what is actually happening in our particular context.”
Smith emphasized that a school resource officer in Summit County may look considerably different than one in Denver or other large urban cities, and said that in the coming weeks the school board would be taking a closer look to see how the program has performed in the past, and dive into data to see what’s working and what isn’t.
“If we have data that shows we need to move in a different direction that is a conversation we’ll have,” Smith said. “If the data says (the school resource officer program) is meeting the needs of the county, than we’ll move forward accordingly.”
The sheriff’s office currently staffs two school resource officers, who work at Summit Middle School, Summit High School and Snowy Peaks Junior and Senior High School.
Smith said he’s already spoken with Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons on the topic, and FitzSimons is expected to meet with the school board at an upcoming meeting to discuss the program in greater depth.
FitzSimons has lauded the program for providing a valuable service both inside and outside of the school.
“I still believe it’s a vital program not just in our schools, but in our community,” FitzSimons said. “Its more than just the protection on the school grounds. These school resource officers work closely with families, and a lot of these kids develop really special relationships with our school resource officers, and often turn to them with issues before their teachers, therapists or even parents.
“When people talk about the national narrative of cops systematically arresting kids, that’s not the norm for our resource officers, nor is it how they operate. When we do have situations where a criminal act is committed we work closely with the school district and the district attorney’s office to see if there are alternative ways to handle it. It’s really different for us.”
FitzSimons pointed to the juvenile diversion program offered by the Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office in lieu of more severe options as a preferred method to dealing with any criminal incidents with students.
Straw said that school resource officers do occasionally deal with criminal activity at the schools, including fights, thefts and drug use. The officers also help to investigate issues outside of school, when students come to them with problems around abuse or sex assault at home. But Straw estimated only about 30% of their daily work accounts for any sort of law enforcement activity.
Instead, Straw said the school resource officers spend most of their time forming bonds with students, families and school staff — helping to run clubs, attending sporting events, writing letters of recommendation and more.
“I think our community is one where if there is division on a certain topic we’ll get together and hash it out,” Straw said. “But I know the school district has supported us, and supported us being a part of the kids growing up. The program couldn’t be any farther from just being a gun in school. Our officers foster relationships that echo way beyond school, and well after kids graduate.”
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