Officers school students in public safety

Kitsap County Sheriff Deputy Jon Johnson, also a school resource officer, works with students and parents in the district. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Kitsap County Sheriff Deputy Jon Johnson, also a school resource officer, works with students and parents in the district.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

NORTH END — Peacekeepers and peacemakers alike, school resource officers (SRO) wear many hats in a given day.

They patrol the halls, parking lots and lunch rooms. They teach classes on safety and combat MySpace harassment issues that bleed into the classroom. But perhaps their most important duty is building bridges and relationships between youth and the police department, and reaching out to kids before an idea or situation escalates out of control.

They are the schools’ personal police officers.

“Kids don’t know how much trouble they’re getting into and I can derail that by getting them into the office and talking with them,” said North Kitsap School District (NKSD) SRO of three years Jon Johnson, who has also served for five years as a Kitsap County Sheriff deputy.

Johnson is responsible for patrolling the North End schools and has daily contact with about 1,500 kids. “I don’t know any other patrolman who has any more contacts in a day’s time. The kids feel safer. They’ve realized that they have another adult they can talk to.”

Shawn Ziemann, a Poulsbo police officer of 14 years, has been an NKSD SRO for four years. He’s responsible for Poulsbo schools.

Both SROs said they applied for the post to help break down the barriers and stereotypes between officers and teenagers, as they said youth are afraid of “cops” and view authority as a threat.

Today, nine years after the district’s SRO program began, many of those fears have been reduced, as have a number of school safety concerns.

Ziemann spent one year as an SRO during the 1998-99 school year, the first year NKSD had SROs. He said in the early days of the program there were a lot more drug and alcohol arrests, more fights in school, more thefts and more smoking write-ups. However, the climate has changed over the years.

“Since that time our numbers have declined and we feel it’s due to our presence up there,” he said. “I know there’s been times I’ve counseled kids with harassment issues and it’s stopped right there, it didn’t continue. A lot of times they shake hands and they’ll be done with it.”

Johnson shared similar sentiments. He said he’s known kids who were headed down the wrong path and he was able to intervene and help them turn around. He said students are more willing to talk with him and share pertinent information because they know and trust him, as was evidenced by an incident that came up during his first year on the job.

That year, the student body was feeling the emotional brunt of two teen suicides. He said, due to miscommunication, threats of students bringing guns to school with the an intent to cause violence were circulating. The rumors were targeted at a group of students categorized as “goths.” However, Johnson knew the students in question. He’d developed a trusting relationship with them, and through talking with them he was able to squelch the tension, and the rumors and fear were laid to rest.

“Because of the good relationships and rapport that was made, no other officer would have been able to get as much information from the students,” Johnson recalled.

Student resource officers and their success stories may no longer be a presence on NKSD’s campuses, as the $32,000 the district pays as a portion of each of the SRO’s salary is facing elimination from the budget. It’s the same story as that being played out in schools nationwide.

Kevin Quinn, the National Association of School Resource Officers media relations representative, said school districts all across the country are forfeiting the program because of a lack of funding. He receives several calls daily from school administrators who miss their SROs and inquire about how they can get them back.

While Ziemann and Johnson won’t be out of a job —they’ll continue their duties with their departments — NKSD could be out a safety net for the students.

Although both Johnson and Ziemann attest to safety improvements throughout the district, they’re working with teenagers and harassment, theft, bullying and vandalism will always exist.

And they do.

Harassment, theft and an ever-increasing abuse of prescription drugs — oxycoton and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder medication — continue to plague the halls at NKSD secondary schools.

“A lot of kids are giving away or selling their own ADHD meds,” Ziemann said. “Four students went to the hospital last spring for taking medication that didn’t belong to them and they had a bad reaction.”

Technology has also reared its ugly head. Johnson’s noted Internet bullying through MySpace carries over into the school environment. He knows of several people who’ve threatened to kill somebody online. Kids are even using text messages as a harassment medium.

It’s realities such as these that worry Johnson and Ziemann, both NKSD parents, about the program’s possible elimination.

“It’s a position that needs to be there to provide that positive police presence and to be there as a resource for students, staff and even parents,” Ziemann said. “My fear is that without a police presence we’ll have extreme rises in school violence, fighting and increased use and distribution of drugs.”

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