Summit County school resource officers provide more than protection to students
FRISCO — Summer is fading to an end, and students around the state are heading back to classes for a new year of learning.
Things are no different in Summit County, where district students at Summit middle and high schools started the school year Wednesday. As students prepare for a sudden influx of homework and other responsibilities, officials are keeping their eyes on safety.
The county’s school resource officers are hoping to put worries to rest following the STEM shooting in May in Highlands Ranch along with a number of violent incidents in schools around the nation over the past several years.
“There are days when the kids’ anxieties are definitely spiked,” said Sgt. Jake Straw, who oversees the county’s school resource officer program for the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and served as a resource officer at the middle school last year. “Just for them to see you every day provides so much comfort, so they can do their jobs, which is to learn. We’re there to try and put minds at ease.”
The program began in the late ’90s and operated normally until 2007, when a budget pinch forced the program down to one deputy, who served the middle and high schools. The program shut down in 2010 and restarted in 2014 with one deputy. A second resource officer was added back to the program in 2016.
Today, the Sheriff’s Office provides resource officers to Summit Middle School, Summit High School and Snowy Peaks. Their main purpose is to maintain safety and security at the school, even if the worst happens.
“There’s so many hats you have to wear, and so many expectations for you in that role,” Straw said. “But when you put your uniform on in the morning, you have to mentally prepare for the worst-case scenario, which is an active shooter. … It’s really pretty crazy to go from that mindset to when you get to school, and it’s all smiling faces, and you give high fives, and you’re being a positive role model. But you know at any second you could be faced with that threat, and you would have to address it. It’s a challenge to be able to switch that hat. But I know it’s a comfort to parents and staff, and I know talking to a bunch of kids that they feel better with us being there, as well.”
While emergency situations in Summit’s schools are rare, resource officers say the position has evolved over recent years with officers taking on more responsibility in the schools than just providing protection.
Straw and Wanda Wilkerson, a resource officer at the high school for almost a decade, said their roles have increased to incorporate a wide range of responsibilities, including serving as mediators when students have disagreements, intervening when they see things like bullying and even serving as a friendly counselor when students approach them with issues at school or home.
“I think when (school resource officers) started coming into play, everybody had the mindset we’re just there to protect them,” said Wilkerson, who also teaches a class on introduction to criminal justice. “Over the years, because of all the good outcomes that we’ve had with the students, it’s now more about building those relationships. They don’t just see us as security. We’re really there to support the kids, the staff and the parents, if need be.”
Wilkerson said the job also differs considerably from other police work in that, while others might be able to leave their worries in the office when they leave for the night, she’s often left thinking about the kids.
“You don’t just finish your paperwork and go home,” Wilkerson said. “We think about these kids all the time and worry about them. It’s not a job that ends at 5 o’clock or 3:30.”
Still, Straw and Wilkerson said getting to build relationships with the students is one of the best parts of the job. And the school district agrees.
“One of the most important aspects for us is building relationships with students, and our (school resource officers) are very good at that,” Summit School District communications director Mikki Grebetz said. “And I think in this school climate, our community supports anything we can do to better ensure the safety of our students.”
Visitor management system
The school district is introducing some new safety measures this year, Grebetz said. During last year’s renovation at the high school, a more secure vestibule was put in place along with new radios meant to improve communication among staff members.
Also this year, the district will operate a new visitor management system meant to better track visitors at the school and provide warnings about potentially dangerous individuals. According to the system’s developer, Raptor Technologies, it can automatically screen visitors through a number of national and state databases to flag sex offenders, alert staff of custody violations and check criminal backgrounds. The system also includes an emergency panic button.
Another school safety tool the community should be aware of is Safe2Tell, the state’s anonymous tip line where students, parents and staff can report concerns about their own safety or the safety of others.
The tip line saw record numbers during the past school year, showing that students are more willing than ever to reach out and make reports. Safe2Tell received 19,861 actionable tips through the line during the 2018-2019 school year, a 28% increase from the previous year, according to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. The tip line also has seen greater volumes of reports during summer months. There were 551 reports received in July this year, a stark 81% upswing from July 2018.
Students and others also appear to be using the line responsibly. State law mandates that law enforcement and schools follow up on each tip submitted to determine its credibility. To date, only about 2.4% of tips have been false.
To make a report, individuals can call 877-542-7233. Reports also can be made at Safe2Tell.org or through the Safe2Tell mobile app available on the Apple App Store or Google Play.
“There’s some well-grounded fear in schools and some anxiety in schools that are based on real incidents you’re seeing take place around the country,” Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “We hope to alleviate some of that anxiety and fear for students and staff.”
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