In addition to donning a badge and gun, a school resource officer wears many hats — investigating when a theft is reported at the high school, helping with a middle school dance, attending a football game, patrolling a busy parking lot, talking about safety with elementary kids and, ultimately, protecting students if their school is threatened.
With all of the responsibilities — and at a time when school safety is a hot topic — Park County School District No. 1 and the Powell Police Department are looking at adding a second school resource officer (SRO) in Powell’s schools.
“I feel like, with as much as we’re doing, this is just one more thing that would create a much safer environment,” said Jay Curtis, superintendent of the Powell school district. “A trained officer is probably one of the greatest defenses that we could muster in the event of a school threat.”
Curtis told the Park County District No. 1 board of trustees last month that hiring a second SRO is “just a discussion item at this point.”
The school district partners with the City of Powell Police Department to provide funding for a sworn officer to work in local schools.
An armed school resource officer is “a true employee of the police department,” Curtis said.
“The police department does all the vetting and all the training,” he said.
Police Chief Roy Eckerdt said while the possibility of adding a second officer is just in the discussion phase, “there’s definitely an interest on our part.”
“I think we have a need for a second SRO, and we’ve been there for a while,” Eckerdt said.
One officer would be assigned to Powell High School, and a second to Powell Middle School. They would then share responsibilities among Powell’s three elementary schools.
“Right now, the majority of the SRO’s time is spent between the high school and the middle school, which then leaves very little time for the elementary schools,” Eckerdt said.
The overall goal of the school resource officer program is to build relationships with students, from elementary all the way through high school, he said.
“The SRO does not fill the role of a school disciplinarian, if you will. They’re not there to enforce school rules or policy,” Eckerdt said.
School board chairman Greg Borcher said it’s important for police officers to be in schools starting at the elementary level to show kids, “Hey, we’re not the bad guy — we’re your friend.”
Chief Eckerdt said he’d like to see more opportunities for SROs to be in classrooms, talking to kids about various topics, such as drug/alcohol prevention and general safety.
While there’s some of that going on now, a sole SRO doesn’t have much time available in his schedule.
“It’s hard to have much of a relationship aspect when you’re just jumping from fire to fire,” Eckerdt said.
Superintendent Curtis recalled a time last year when he and former SRO Jason Pellegrino were responding to an issue and two other principals called Pellegrino for something else.
School principals spoke highly of the SRO program and said they turn to the officer for various needs in their schools.
Westside Elementary School Principal Angela Woyak said the SRO was crucial with rolling out the district-wide ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training on how to respond in an active shooter situation.
“I have leaned on them heavily for assessing school safety and security,” Woyak said.
In addition, the SRO makes an effort to spend time with kids at recess or lunch, and sometimes is involved with special programs or field trips, she said.
Southside Elementary School Principal Scott Schiller added that the SRO also helps if child abuse is suspected.
“Then it’s an automatic first call to them, and they’re right there,” Schiller said.
At Powell High School, Principal Jim Kuhn said the SRO serves in a variety of ways, including helping when a student is suspected of using drugs or alcohol at school.
“We usually invite them in to do the questioning,” Kuhn said. “If we want to do a blood test or something like that, they set that up and take care of that for us, because they deal with that a lot more in their line of work. … They’re a lot better at spotting it if we have a suspicion.”
Having a uniformed officer at a basketball game or in a busy parking lot when young drivers are in a hurry can also make a big difference, he said.
When a SRO is gone for training, the second officer could be on hand, “which I think gives a large amount of safety to our students and staff,” Kuhn added.
Trustee Tracy Morris asked how Clark Elementary School fits into the plan for a second SRO.
Superintendent Curtis said the Powell police don’t have jurisdiction in Clark, and that he hadn’t talked with the Park County Sheriff’s Department about providing a school resource officer.
“Clark is, I think, as safe as a small school can be made. Their check-in system is more rigorous than our vestibules,” he said. “I don’t think they’re any more exposed than the students in Powell. The only thing that creates exposure is the lack of [law enforcement] availability and the response time, should anything occur.”
Salary costs shared
The school district pays for 75 percent of the SRO’s salary and benefits, while the City of Powell pays 25 percent.
The actual amount fluctuates based on an officer’s level of experience. In recent years, the school district has paid around $63,000 annually, while the city’s portion is roughly $20,000.
Chief Eckerdt said the funding would need to be examined and discussed, adding that the city administrator and mayor are aware of the discussion.
Eckerdt said it’s possible a second SRO could be hired next year if the funding, hiring and training all work out.
“As long as both administrations are willing to move forward with it,” he said.
While they’re “a long ways from knowing exact dollars,” Superintendent Curtis said federal Title IV funds could potentially pay for most of the district’s share of a second officer.
The district would “have to re-prioritize what we are using Title IV dollars for currently,” said Mary Jo Lewis, coordinator of business services for the district.
Curtis told the school board it’s possible the Wyoming Legislature may help fund SROs, saying there’s at least one bill in the works.
“Now, what that’s going to look like at the end of the legislative session, I don’t know,” Curtis said. “It’s been in front of them several times before, and they’ve always voted it down. I think that the iron is hot right now — I think school safety is at the front of everyone’s minds.”
Curtis added later that he thinks legislators will feel pressure to fund additional school safety measures.
“Our public is demanding it more and more,” he said. “They are demanding that schools become safer and safer, and I just don’t think they [lawmakers] can say ‘no’ this year.”