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Spotsy putting deputy at elementary school

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Courtland Elementary School in Spotsylvania County will be the first primary school in the immediate Fredericksburg area, and among a small number statewide, with its own sheriff’s deputy.

Many local school divisions have full-time armed school resource officers, or SROs, in middle and high schools but not at the elementary level.

Spotsylvania became the exception after the Board of Supervisors voted this month to accept a state grant for a resource officer at Courtland for the upcoming school year. The officer, who will be a uniformed Sheriff’s Office deputy, is expected to start in August.

Spotsylvania Sheriff Roger Harris says he eventually wants to place resource officers at every elementary school. Spotsylvania currently has them at all middle and high schools.

“Sheriff Harris is very serious when he says he’s trying to make sure we have an SRO in every school,” Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Pearce said. “And that’s our goal. We may have trouble achieving that goal anytime soon, but we’re not going to stop trying.”

A condition of the one-year grant, which the county can reapply for three times, is that the resource officer work at a single school, he noted. Once the grant expires, the officer could potentially spend time in various elementary schools.

The state earmarked grant money for the resource officers and unarmed school security officers in response to the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that killed 20 children and six adults. The Department of Criminal Justice Services this year received grant applications for 18 elementary school resource officers, but approved just three.

Statewide, 567 schools reported having full-time resource officers in 2012–13, according to DCJS. Just 21 of them were elementaries. Meanwhile, 59 of Virginia’s 133 school divisions reported having some sort of resource officer presence at the elementary level in 2012–13.

“There are many more elementary schools with an occasional SRO than there are elementary schools with a full-time SRO,” DCJS research analyst Sherri Johnson wrote in an email.

It’s too soon to say whether full-time elementary resource officers are becoming a trend, she said. DCJS may have a better idea later this year when it receives an SRO count for the 2013–14 school year.

Last summer, DCJS awarded 16 grants for elementary school resource officers.

WHY COURTLAND?

Pearce, the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office captain, stressed that Courtland Elementary off Smith Station Road was chosen for the SRO because of its location and population, not because there are issues there.

“It’s not that it’s a problem school,” he said. “I mean, come on, it’s an elementary school.”

The “needs justification” section of Courtland’s grant application notes that the 564-student school is off a busy, 45-mph road; shares access with a high school that hosts many events; is near a lot of residential and commercial property; has the second-highest disciplinary rate of the county’s 17 elementary schools; and has an average of 14 visitors daily.

The application also notes that the Sheriff’s Office has received an average of 34 calls for service annually from Courtland over the past three years. The nature of those calls was not described.

In addition, three registered sex offenders live or work within a 1-mile radius of the school, and 98 registered sex offenders live or work within a 5-mile radius, according to the grant application.

Schools spokeswoman Rene Daniels described Courtland as just one of several schools “on the list” for enhanced security. Having a resource officer there will be like a pilot program for the division, she said.

“I think if you looked at each elementary school, there would be a factor at that school that would make it an excellent choice for an SRO,” Daniels said. “For us, every school needs an SRO.”

Spotsylvania this year submitted grant applications for school resource officers at Courtland and Chancellor elementary schools and for unarmed security guards at nine other elementary schools. Daniels said the division was told that the state was more likely to fund security officers than resource officers. DCJS ended up approving all but the grant for the resource officer at Chancellor.

The School Board asked the county to accept just two of the security officer grants, which would have covered about 35 percent of the first-year cost. But the supervisors rejected that money, with Supervisor Greg Cebula calling the unarmed guards “glorified hall monitors.”

Each of the county’s five high schools currently has two security officers, who work for the school division, not the Sheriff’s Office.

POSITION QUESTIONED

Not everyone supports having sheriff’s deputies in elementary schools.

Angela Fritz, whose 6-year-old son will be a first-grader at Courtland, said she wished the county had surveyed parents first.

“I feel it’s a very reactionary and fear-based decision,” Fritz said. “Whatever issues they’re having in an elementary school, why do you need a gun to deal with that?”

In 2012–13, Courtland had 34 “disorderly or disruptive behavior offenses,” according to the Virginia Department of Education. That was second to Spotswood Elementary, which had 61.

One of the grants that the supervisors rejected was for an unarmed security officer at Spotswood Elementary.

Fritz said she has not seen many behavioral issues at Courtland. In fact, she said, she moved to the Fox Point neighborhood so her son could attend the school.

“We’ve had a really great experience with the teachers and the administrators,” she said.

Fritz said she attended a high school in Texas that had a heavy police presence. “It just felt like we were in a jail.

“I don’t want my kid to grow up in a school with that kind of culture,” she added.

‘WE’RE HERE TO HELP’

Advocates of school resource officers say the officers are meant to help students, not punish them.

In a letter to parents last week, Courtland Principal Sherri Steele expressed excitement about getting the officer.

“An SRO is a member of the Sheriff’s Department who is trained to specifically work in schools to build positive relationships while supporting our students, staff and community,” she wrote.

She added that parents could meet the new officer at the school’s Welcome Back Orientation on Aug. 29.

Steele said in an interview that she was happy about “the opportunity to have somebody who really knows our building give us some great insight into ways we can enhance safety.”

Courtland Elementary School PTO President Jennifer Harding also said she thinks the SRO will be a positive addition.

“Policemen aren’t there just to fight crime,” Harding said. “Policemen are here to help us and to show us how to make good choices. That’s a positive, and we benefit as parents knowing that should any emergency arise, we are lucky to have someone who is specifically trained to deal with an emergency situation.”

The resource officer’s objectives will include training staff to identify potential threats and suspicious persons, and how to respond to those scenarios, according to the grant application.

Goals also include developing positive relationships with 50 percent or more of parents and reaching at least 80 percent of fourth- and fifth-grade students by June 30, 2015.

The officer, who will have an “open-door policy,” will meet with fourth- and fifth-grade classes to discuss acceptable behavior, social media, gang awareness and bullying, the grant application said.

Pearce said the officer will help the students “maintain a positive image of law enforcement and know that we’re not there to hurt them or get them, we’re there to help.”

The deputy will cost a total of $86,273, including equipment, for the fiscal year that began July 1. The grant will cover $33,370 of that amount.

NO RUSH TO COPY

Despite the push in Spotsylvania, it doesn’t appear that placing resource officers at elementary schools is a high priority in other local school divisions.

Stafford County currently has a resource officer at each of its high schools and SROs who split their time between middle schools. Like in Spotsylvania, two DARE officers visit all elementary schools.

The division hasn’t discussed adding SROs at the elementary schools, though it has taken other steps—such as reconfiguring entrances—to improve security, a Stafford schools spokeswoman said.

Caroline and King George counties have full-time resource officers at all middle and high schools. And Caroline has a resource officer who spends time in all of the county’s public elementary schools, in addition to the private Carmel School.

The city of Fredericksburg doesn’t have a resource officer assigned to its elementary schools or middle school, police spokeswoman Natatia Bledsoe said. But she said patrol officers are encouraged to drop by the schools during their day shifts. Hugh Mercer Elementary is right next door to the Police Department on Cowan Boulevard.

“I know of some officers even going to eat lunch at times with the kids,” Bledsoe wrote in an email.

Starting this year, she said, James Monroe High School will have two resource officers who will work on opposite days. Those officers will patrol the streets on weekends and school holidays, Bledsoe said.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

jbranscome@freelancestar.com

 

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