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School district looks at security options

Staff Writer

In a continuation of the conversation concerning school safety, the Archuleta School District Board of Education heard from two Durango policemen involved with that city’s School Resource Officer program during a work session conducted before the May 28 regular board meeting.

Board president Linda Lattin explained that the two officers had been invited to Pagosa to explain how the SRO program works in their school district.

Sgt. Peterson has been with the Durango Police Department for 33 years and is currently overseeing its SRO program. Leonard Martinez has been with the Durango PD for over 19 years and has been the SRO at Durango High School for 13 of those years. He is also the Western Slope co-rep for the Colorado Association of SROs.

“We have been inviting Chief Rockensock to all of our meetings,” Martinez explained. Pagosa Springs Police Chief William Rockensock has been in the process of applying for a grant that would pay more than $100,000 per year for three years to start an SRO program in the local school district. “I think Kathy Morris from the San Juan BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) has been working with you as well in an effort to get this done and try to get things going.”

“A little bit about our program right now,” Peterson jumped in, “we’ve got four SROs — one at the high school, one at Miller Middle School, and two working with the three elementary schools. They are all interchangeable, so while Leonard is at the high school probably eighty percent of the time, we can also have the other three fill in, or if they get a call at any of the schools, any of them can respond.”

Peterson went on to explain that the four SROs not only cover the city’s public schools, but also work with private schools and schools located in outlying areas of La Plata County. They also try to get to the area’s preschools on a regular basis.

“Any kind of lessons that we give are usually requested by the schools,” Peterson explained. “Leonard does teach classes at the high school. The middle school SRO teaches classes as well and we were even having the two elementary SROs teach what we call the TRACK program.” He went on to explain this is a modification of the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program. The SROs also join in with the schools’ health teachers to help teach classes on topics such as alcohol and tobacco use.

As far as the security issue, Peterson explained that it is a hit-or-miss situation, depending on if the SRO is in the building at the time of an incident. The SRO could be at lunch at the time or on a field trip with one of the classes, which happens occasionally.

“What we are trying to do,” Peterson said, “is build up a dialog with the students, in the hope that if they have got a problem, we can find out about it. The high school students build up a rapport with Leonard to where, especially the ones that tend to get into a little bit more trouble, he can go in and they feel like they can talk to him.”

“When I first started in 2000,” Martinez added, “I was on a COPS grant, and that’s what Chief Rockensock is trying to get right now. The grant was for three years. I don’t remember what the match was, but it was a pretty big thing to get us into the schools to start with. I was the first full time SRO.

“Right now the city, through the Durango Police Department, pays our wages and pays for everything. There’s no grant money or anything else. This is something that the chief has worked out through the city council and the city manager. All that the school district does is provide us with an office, a phone line, and a cell phone. The rest of it is picked up by the police department.

“Every one of our members is also a member of the SWAT team, in one way or another. Out of the four SROs, three of us are negotiators with the SWAT team — so we’re the ones that go out there and baffle everyone and tell them exactly what they want so they will give us what we want, for them to end the situation without causing harm to anybody.”

Peterson and Martinez went on to explain a variety of situations, from simple theft or a fight to domestic violence or a sexual assault, and how they would respond to the situation. They also described a youth services program that allows juvenile offenders to make amends or restitution without going through the criminal justice system or having it on their permanent record.

“Any of the schools know that at any time if one of the SROs is gone they can call one of the other ones and somebody will be there,” Martinez continued. “If it’s something urgent and we aren’t in the building we advise them to call dispatch or 911 first, and you can have any one of us there within three to five minutes.”

Peterson attended the school board meeting in his police uniform, but Martinez was wearing civilian clothing with a badge on a chain around his neck and a pistol in a holster at his side. He indicated that it wasn’t unusual for him to dress casually at the school.

“They’re not required to wear the uniform,” Peterson added. “They are required to be armed. They don’t carry any other firearms into the schools. They don’t have special lockers inside the schools. If something goes down they are going to handle it with what they’ve got on their person at the time. They’re not going to be able to run back out to their car.

“I know that Dove Creek has gone to having several of their teachers carrying firearms. The only thing we would say is that Dove Creek is quite a ways out there. Response times to that school for the sheriff’s department or the city police are probably fairly substantial, just like some of our area schools out in the county. It could take fifteen minutes for us to get out to Animas Elementary. Fifteen minutes is a heck of a long time if there is a person inside the school with a firearm.

“But then you look at, would a teacher be willing to go through the training to bring them up to being able to take someone’s life. Would a teacher be able to make that decision? In the hallway, if it is crowded and someone is shooting and kids are dropping, would he or she be willing to take that shot?

“I also do the firearms training for our police department, and I put up targets, head-sized targets, and say, ‘Here is the bad guy, and here are all the good guys around him. Where do you have to be to make that shot?’ We start up close, but then we start backing up, and I ask, ‘If you miss, where is that shot going? Are you willing to take that chance? If that person is shooting children, are you willing to take that shot, and make that decision that fast?’ It is a tough decision for a trained officer, so would a teacher be willing to go through that kind of training?”

“And are they ready to live with it for the rest of their lives after they do take that shot?” Martinez chimed in. “Or if you do take that shot and hit an innocent person … I mean the liability, even for us in law enforcement, we hope we are never in that situation, but we train for it.

“I’ve seen videos and I’ve talked to officers that were involved in Columbine and I’ve talked to people back east who have been in active shooter situations and they’ve told me, ‘I hesitated because I knew I didn’t know what was going to happen but I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I ended up killing the wrong person.’”

Martinez went on to explain that 80 percent of his time is spent talking to students and parents, acting as a counselor to help them work through issues and prevent things from happening, five percent of his time is spent dealing with incidents that have happened, and 15 percent of his time is spent doing drills or beefing up security at the site to prepare for things that can happen.

The discussion with the school board continued for the rest of the work session, then resumed later during the regular school board meeting, with board member Ken Fox making a motion to direct Superintendent Mark DeVoti to continue working on options for beefing up school security.

The overarching message from the two Durango police officers was that this type of school security roll can only be properly carried out by a trained police officer.

This sentiment echoes statements made at an earlier school board meeting when Rockensock said he would not be able to take responsibility for anyone being armed in the school unless they were a member of his department, someone he could supervise and insure was properly trained.

“Recently the federal government opened a new COPS 2013 hiring grant application,” Rockensock explained earlier at the May 14 town council work session. “The primary purpose of this is to hire new school resource officers. The grant itself is for a three year term for up to 75 percent of the salary and benefits for a new school resource officer to be put into the schools. The grant is for $125,000 per year. After the three years are up the town is responsible for maintaining the position for at least one more calendar year after the end of the grant cycle.

“It’s something I truly believe we should be doing in our schools. I have spoken to you about this before, but one of the biggest concerns, of course, has been the funding.”

The police chief went on to explain that he was currently working on the grant, and there was a substantial amount of work involved in getting the application put together, but before he actually submitted it he wanted to make sure the mayor and town council supported the idea of having an armed police officer in the schools. When the idea has come up in the past Mayor Ross Aragon has expressed his skepticism and reluctance.

“You have my support, obviously,” town council member Don Volger responded. “I think it is a good granting opportunity and it fills in an area that we are a little short in, so I think it can really help. Also, in your discussions with other agencies that have school resource officers, and the benefits those communities receive, I don’t see how we can say no.”

The mayor made no comment one way or the other.

“I think initially there was a knee-jerk reaction for a lot of people because of Sandy Hook,” Rockensock explained, referring to last December’s deadly school shooting incident in Newtown, Conn., “but that’s not what the School Resource Officer is about. It’s not about being there in case something happens; it’s about us having someone in the schools or a heartbeat away from the schools who knows what’s going on, can help along the way, and can maybe prevent something like that from happening.”

ed.fincher@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on June 6, 2013.
  • Kurt Jon Raymond

    Sounds like this was a rational, level-headed discussion. After reading this article, I’m strongly in favor of funding a School Resource Officer – they could do our community much good.