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Program puts specialized officers in schools

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Photo courtesy of Bonnie Bevers. West Virginia currently has 68 PROs working at schools in 29 of its 55 counties. Grant funding helps pay for some, and many are funded locally. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Bevers. West Virginia currently has 68 PROs working at schools in 29 of its 55 counties. Grant funding helps pay for some, and many are funded locally.

As bad as a November student-on-student stabbing at Morgantown High School was, Police Chief Ed Preston knows it could have been worse. 

Much, much worse.

"(The victim) had multiple stab wounds and lacerations," he said. "It was very ugly; there was a large amount of blood at the scene. It could have been bad."

The fact that it wasn't worse was largely due to luck: The school's Prevention Resource Officer was at the scene almost immediately and able to administer first aid to the 17-year-old stabbing victim. His 14-year-old assailant has been charged with unlawful assault and possessing a weapon on school grounds; the 17-year-old, alleged to have a history of bullying the younger child, was charged with battery.

"He had everything under control before any of the secondary units got there," Preston said. "That's the one thing about the PROs — they're actually on site, whereas if somebody has to dial 911 (help) still has to get there."

The PRO program, a cooperative effort between schools and law enforcement, puts specially trained officers into schools to serve as mentors for students and staff. The officers teach non-traditional classes on topics such as juvenile law, domestic violence and underage drinking, and they coach students and staff to recognize potential danger, to prevent violence and how to react.

West Virginia currently has 68 PROs working at schools in 29 of its 55 counties. Grant funding helps pay for some, many are funded locally.

State Coordinator Bonnie Bevers said PROs have been walking the halls of West Virginia schools for about 15 years.

"I can say, definitively, we have stopped violence and our PROs have made a difference," Bevers said. "We're one of the only states on the east coast that hasn't had an act of mass school violence. 

"All the states around us have, all the states contiguous to us have had an act of mass school violence. West Virginia has not."

Over the past two decades violence in U.S. schools has escalated, claiming the lives of hundreds of students, teachers and administrators and making place names like Columbine and Newtown part of the American vernacular.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asserts that school-associated violent deaths are actually rare:

 

  • A CDC study of school-associated violent death found that less than 2 percent of all homicides involving school-age children happen on school grounds, on the way to and from school or at a school-sponsored event.
  • An earlier CDC study found cited 828,000 "non-fatal victimizations" among kids ages 12-18 during the 2009-10 school year "Non-fatal victimizations" would include things like fights, threats and bullying.
  • And in 2011, CDC said a "sampling" of kids in grades 9-12 found 12 percent of children had been in a physical altercation on school property over the preceding 12 months; 5.4 percent admitted carrying a weapon of some sort to school on one or more days in the month preceding the survey; 7.4 percent said they'd been threatened or injured on school property; 20 percent reported being bullied on school property, and 16 percent said they'd been bullied electronically.

 

While West Virginia has had its share of incidents, none have involved a fatality. though there have been plenty of near misses. Among the more serious: in 2011, a student called Williamstown High School PRO Deputy Scott Jefferson in the early morning hours to tell him about another student who was threatening to bring weapons to school. A search of the suspect's home yielded evidence the student had planned to act on the threats, authorities said. And in 2012, Ravenswood PRO Cpl. Tom Speece intervened after getting a tip that a student was planning to bring a hit list and a shotgun to school.

Earlier this month a 15-year-old girl at Weir High School was taken into custody after the school's PRO got a tip that she had a handgun in her purse, though so far authorities aren't saying what, if anything, she planned to do with it.

Ravenswood Police Chief Lance Morrison figures West Virginia has been lucky.

"I don't think there's a sheriff or chief of police anywhere in the state that doesn't know a tragedy like Sandy Hook is a possibility," he said. "After the Sandy Hook tragedy, if there was a parent in the country that wasn't uneasy about sending their kids to school I'd be surprised."

Wood County School Superintendent Patrick Law agreed, saying it's hard to overstate the importance of a program designed to keep kids safe.

"They've proven to be an excellent means to prevent (problems) and link with students," Law said. "Our best resource officers aren't seen by the students as someone that's there to try and catch them doing something wrong — they're seen as being there to make them safer, make their lives easier. 

"They're friends with the students, they get to know the students."

Wood County has PROs in each of its three high schools, including Williamstown. Law said a new grant will allow them to put additional officers at the middle school level as well.

With 13,000 students attending Wood County Schools, "it just provides a level of security," he said. 

"You hope those problems never arise but when they do, to have an officer in place that they can contact (is critical). We don't want to react after something happens, we want to act before it occurs. Probably the greatest benefit to the program is that it gives us an opportunity to head those things off."

Even tips that turn out to be unfounded can be useful, he added.

"We received a call a few months back of a student with a gun in a school parking lot," Law said. "It turned out to be a false alarm, but it put us into lockdown and tested our communications with police, their response and our ability to support them. 

"It's important for school, students and staff to have a really good plan in place to react to situations."

Wood County Schools Safety Coordinator Don Brown, a former PRO himself, said officers assigned to schools deal with situations on a daily basis that could potentially lead to violence.

"You'd be surprised how often these things actually occur, and what the resource officers and schools do together to ensure the safety of students in the schools," he said. "Prevention happens quite often; the officers do it on a regular basis. That's the value of the program."

Ohio County has five PROs, four of them at the middle school level, and a deputy who monitors access to the high school, Assistant Superintendent Bernie Dolan said.

"I don't know how everybody else does it, but ours also do educational programs," he said. "School safety is their No. 1 thing but they also teach drug prevention, conflict resolution, Internet safety, being responsible in using electronic communications devices. 

"They're also out there helping with all of our events. I think they're making a difference in the community, too. The number of juvenile cases in Ohio County has gone down over the last three years."

Only a small percentage of their salaries is grant-funded, Dolan added. 

"This year our grant is for $30,000, so we're currently putting about $270,000 of our own money in — $220,000 for the five PROs and another $50,000 for the sheriff's deputy," he said. "That's a major commitment by our Board of Education."

And while they also help fine-tune evacuation plans and escape routes, "so far we haven't had to use it," Dolan said. "Probably the reason we haven't had to is the officers and the relationships they've developed with the kids. 

"You'd be shocked how many times kids come to the officers and tell them things; it's allowed us to head off small things that might have turned into big things."

Ritchie County PRO Capt. Bryan Davis says it's what you don't see happening in West Virginia schools that tells you it's working.

"It's one of those programs that, in my opinion, every middle school and high school should have," he said.

Jefferson County is one of the few districts in West Virginia that doesn't have a formal PRO program in place, but Superintendent Susan Wall says they nonetheless work very closely with city police, sheriff's deputies and state police. They meet regularly, she said, and officers have been assigned to work "very closely" with each school.

"They make regular visits to the school, sometimes they just stop by to eat with the children and talk," said Wall, who describes it as a partnership.

"They may be law enforcement officers but they're parents as well," she said. "They have a vested interest as parents and members of our community."

In addition to developing a rapport with students, she said the officers also provide training for administrators, teachers and support staff. On a recent staff development day when there were no children present, police demonstrated for them what a gun would sound like inside a school building.

"One of our teachers told them they'd just bought (the staff) time because now they'll recognize the sound," Wall said. "If you looked at the stories about Sandy Hook, a teacher there heard a noise – she wasn't sure what it was but decided she wasn't taking chances, so she initiated lockdown procedures" that saved the lives of her students.

Wall, meanwhile, said she isn't sure she should admit how much the "what if" scenarios weigh on her.

"I pray every day," she said. "Maybe I shouldn't say that in public education, but I do. You plan, you work hard and you do pray. It's a concern, and you must take it seriously."