School resource officers fill multiple roles in McHenry County schools

CARY – In his three years as the school resource officer at Cary-Grove High School, Cary Police Officer Josh Victor typically sees only a handful of incidents each year in which he has to intervene in some way.

When it has happened, it’s always been dealt with verbally. Other than breaking up a couple fights with students, he’s never had to physically restrain someone, Victor said.

That’s part of how many school resource officers are trained, he said – to try to connect with students and to try not to get involved in incidents that fall under the disciplinary jurisdiction of the school and its administrators.

“There’s nothing written in stone,” Victor said. “But what it comes down to is common sense, for one, and No. 2, you have to understand the law as it pertains to juveniles, and three, there’s a code of ethics ... and you don’t engage in something that you think is wrong.”

His explanation of the job comes about a month after former Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields in South Carolina was fired after he apparently flipped a disruptive student out of her desk and tossed her across a math class floor.

Cary Police Chief Pat Finlon, whose department shares the cost of the officer with Community High School District 155 in a 45/55 split, said how involved an officer can or should get should be a collaborative decision between the district and police department. For him, an officer shouldn’t be someone who deals with school discipline.

Instead, he and other area police and school officials said school-based officers should fill a few separate roles: law enforcement, informal counseling and education.

An officer from the local police department is a commonly used resource in high schools to deal with safety concerns and criminal activity, but situations of noncompliance and intervention, such as the one in South Carolina, are not common, McHenry Community High School District 156 Superintendent Mike Roberts said.

“A preponderance of their day is really community policing – getting to know the kids and gaining their respect,” he said, adding the officers also spend time in classrooms making presentations on a variety of topics.

In District 156, school resource officers were brought back last school year after the program had been discontinued for several years for financial reasons.

Sharing the salary costs in a roughly 70/30 split with the McHenry Police Department, the district has two officers, one at each school.

McHenry Police Chief John Jones, who made it a goal to bring the program back, said it’s meant to be beneficial for both the school and the department. Although arrests have been made for drug activity and some violence, writing citations and making arrests shouldn’t be the goal, which should be bridging the gap between youth and police, he said.

“We want these kids to see our officers as human beings,” Jones said. “It’s been a positive response. [The students] see that these [school resource officers] care about them.”

One of the hopes, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers, which trains a large portion of the nation’s school-based officers, is to foster a relationship that results in “shared information.”

There’s intention behind their work, said Mo Canady, the association’s executive director.

“We’re also going to be building positive relationships with parents and others in the community, and that is naturally going to lead to sharing information – not in terms of informants but in terms of relationships,” Canady said. “And the positive information goes both ways.

“The police department is going to do a better job of sharing information, and students and parents could share information that may or may not be valuable to keep stuff from happening.”

Victor said from a law enforcement standpoint, he’s had students report drug activity, domestic situations, and once had a student anonymously return a stolen item from a weekend house party.

McHenry Police Officer Rick Rewiako said from a counseling standpoint, he’s learned of family issues through communicating with students, and even issues in teenage relationships.

“A kid will come in and there’s some stuff going on that probably never would’ve been addressed because they don’t feel comfortable going to anybody,” Rewiako said.

The officers are trained through a basic school resource officer course, many times in addition to voluntary courses that address juvenile law, talking down a juvenile versus talking down an adult, investigation, and interview and interrogation, among several others, said Crystal Lake Police Cmdr. Tom Kotlowski.

In Crystal Lake, there is an officer assigned to each of the three District 155 high schools in the city. Woodstock Community Unit School District 200 has an officer who splits time between the two high schools.

Harvard District 50 has one who goes between the district’s schools, Marengo High School District 154 has a part-time officer, and Richmond-Burton High School District 157 has one at the high school. Algonquin-based Community Unit School District 300 and Huntley Community School District 158 also use school resource officers.

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