School Resource Officers (SRO) have become staples in many schools and law enforcement departments throughout the nation. These officers cross-over the divide between serving the adult community and serving the soon-to-be adult community. Although these officers often see their programs first on the cutting block when finances get tight, their positions are the ultimate in community-based policing. They are at the forefront of preventative policing due to working with a population that has the potential to fill up the prisons of the future.
Over four decades ago, one jurisdiction recognized the need for lower-education and law enforcement partnerships beyond an SRO program. This collaboration was the basis for the Washoe County (NV) School District Police Department (WCSDPD).
The WCSDPD was established in 1971 and recently celebrated 40 years serving the academic community in this region which includes the Reno/Sparks metropolitan area. The district has 63 elementary schools, a special education school, 14 middle schools, 13 comprehensive high school, and eight public charter schools. 38 officers cover this 6,900 square mile jurisdiction of around 65,000 students and 8,700 teachers, administrators and support staff.
The WCSDPD show their dedication to collaboration in their mission statement explaining their goal “to provide a safe and secure learning environment, which promotes an atmosphere of trust between the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural school community and the police department.” Chief Mike Mieras explains further, “Our number one priority is student and staff safety and that’s what we focus on. We don’t get called out for things down the block. Our sole focus is our schools.” Each of the district high schools has a full-time officer who works on-site 8 hours a day. The other schools are covered by the patrol division. Officers cover all athletic events, dances, bus stops and transportation. Their responsibilities start an hour before school and go to an hour after. The department maintains they are proactive in developing relationships intended “to foster positive and safe learning environments whereby our students receive a world-class education.” Police are encouraged to spend quality time interacting with and building positive relationships with staff, students and the community. WCSDPD focuses not only on the protection aspect of their occupation but also the service.
Due to nationally-publicized tragedies involving schools and an increased awareness necessary security measures, emergency management has become a focus in most academic institutions. WCSDPD applied for a grant six years ago from the Department of Education to address this issue. Granted almost a million dollars, the department now has a full-time police officer who does emergency management. The department conducts a school safety assessment annually to look at and make correction to any concerns. Some of these concerns have been addressed with additional federal funding.
Secure out Schools (SOS)
The Community-Oriented Policing Office, a division of the Department of Justice, has granted nearly $913 million to law enforcement agencies, in partnerships with local school districts, to fund safety developments. WCSDPD received grant funding in both 2010 and 2011. The original SOS grant was used to put cameras in the high school and middle school. The second grant is being used to implement and improve the district’s anti-bullying programs. “Part of the grant, (is to) get better data on bullying in the schools,” states Mieras. “In our school district, we work closely with our counseling division.” Another portion of the grant is to replace the old system of locks inside the school. “If we have a lock-down situation or worse case scenario an active assailant, the teachers currently would have to step out in to the hallway, the danger zone, to lock the door,” explains Mieras. “With this new grant they can lock the door from inside the classroom.” In addition to these improvements, WCSDPD also uses funds to continuously train officers and staff to handle any emergency situation that might arise.
Working with Others
Four other police jurisdiction exist within WCSDPD’s school district. Due to this, the officers work closely with other emergency responders, from fire to EMTs to other local police jurisdictions to try and create consistency. “School safety is the number one focus,” Mieras explains speaking of the SOS grant but also of the agency mission. “We need to bring all these agencies together on the same page.” The training and cooperation paid off recently when the area was the scene of a devastating fire.
The Washoe Drive Fire occurred in January, 2012 and in the two days it took to contain it 3,177 acres were charred, 29 homes burned and one woman died. Within the fire zone was a small school with about 300 students under the jurisdiction of the WCSDPD. Due to having practiced together, the children were loaded into buses and the buses evacuated from the area within five minutes.
Working with juveniles is often an over-looked and under-appreciated calling within law enforcement. Many programs putting officers in a position to make a positive difference within the lives of children have been cut or are in danger of being cut as fiscal times get tougher. In spite of this, departments solely dedicated to the academic environment and the safety of students and staff, such as the Washoe County School District Police Department, do exist throughout the country. These agencies are much more than just a school resource. The officers are an integral part of the schools and the community that they serve. Not only do they enforce rules, keep the peace and investigate wrong-doing, they also interact, inspire and mentor children who hopefully will not make choices that will lead them into lives that include criminal activity. “I think we’re cutting edge,” explains Mieras. “We are on the upper level of student safety and school safety. We strive to stay ahead of the game in all these aspects.” And if the Washoe Drive Fire evacuation is any indication, Mieras’ words accurately reflect this law enforcement agency’s success.
Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for eight years. She has an M.S. in Criminology and CJ from Indiana State University and writes full-time from Eugene, Oregon. For more information, visit www.thewritinghand.net