Prevention Resource Officers: Unsung Heroes?
Last week a violent altercation erupted between students at Morgantown High School that ended with one student in a hospital, with multiple stab wounds to the arms and chest. A police officer in the school, known as a Prevention Resource Officer, administered emergency first aid and prevented major blood loss. Few know about the Prevention Resource Officer program and the role these officers play throughout schools in West Virginia.
'Security' to 'Prevention'
Bonnie Bevers, the West Virginia state Prevention Resource Officer coordinator, explains that the Prevention Resource Officer program began in 1998 in Hurricane when a couple of police officers decided to try to improve on the national School Resource Officer program which placed security officers in schools.
“They partnered with my agency which is the Division of Justice and Community Service and began to develop a program that trained police officers who had been established police officers with their departments, put them into schools, had them teach, and mentor, and work toward a fuller relationship rather than just a security officer,” Bevers says.
The program continues to do well, but even as anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness continues to pour in, finding money for these positions is increasingly difficult. Federal grant money, which was a major source of funding, continues to decline. State program coordinator Bonnie Bevers says several officers were pulled from schools this year for lack of funding.
“Fortunately we’ve seen a lot of boards of education stepping up and saying, ‘This is a program we want. It’s important, and we want to keep them there.’ We’ve been really lucky because people see what a good program it is. But the funding is continuing to dwindle.”
Bevers says the program continues to grow, with more officers receiving training each year.
Prevention, Mentoring, and Safety
Currently 68 officers in 29 counties work about 40 hours each week with students in public schools to provide mentoring, safety, and to do what they can to prevent incidents. Bevers says the program has been a success and has likely contributed to the fact that West Virginia is a state that has never seen a school shooting tragedy. In fact on more than one occasion officers have been able to evade just such a tragedy.
“A student actually approached me and said, ‘Hey, Officer Speece, I need to talk to you for a few minutes.”
Officer Tom Speece has been a Prevention Resource Officer for fourteen years at Ravenswood High School in Jackson County.
“This is a kid that is really the last person I ever would have dreamed would approach me in the hallway. He comes up to me and says, ‘Hey this boy is talking about bringing a gun to school tomorrow and shooting some people,’” Officer Speece remembers.
Speece says an immediate investigation revealed evidence that included a hit list, and ultimately resulted in a conviction. A regional liaison officer for the statewide program, Speece points out that there have already been three firearms taken out of schools this year.
Assistant principal at Ravenswood High, Jimmy Fraiser, says Officer Speece plays a critical role in the healthy culture and environment of the school.
“It’s a proactive approach,” Fraiser says. “There are students that come to him on a daily basis that need to talk about various things whether it’s bullying, or a tip on drugs, it may be a situation where somebody stole something, and the kids will offer up that information.”
Fraiser says Speece teaches courses like hunter and driving safety, but he stresses the importance of his role as an authority figure who works to win the confidence and hearts of students who are really the best agents to prevent incidents among classmates.
“There’s an old saying that students don’t really care how much you know until they know how much you care. I think Officer Speece has gotten on a good step with all these students. They know that he’s an honest man, he’s going to be fair with them, and they trust him. I think this is exactly how this is supposed to work.”
Officer Speece says it’s a rewarding occupation:
“It’s awesome. If you enjoy your job you don’t work a day in your life. There’re great kids in these schools—these schools are full of great kids, but they’re going to make mistakes. 99 percent of the time, once you correct them or try to give them a better way of being, 99 percent of the time you don’t have any more issues out of them.”
“My job is to keep all the kids in the building safe, outside threats, kids who have discipline problems, I assist Mr. Wink who’s the disciplinary principal here in assuring his safety and kids safety here in the building,” says Berkeley County Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Carroll is on his beat- at Musselman High School in southern Berkeley County. He shares an office with Assistant Principal Matthew Wink, who handles discipline.
Musselman has about 17 hundred students and 150 employees. There’s an On Site Emergency Team of employees that meets once a month to discuss security and review the measures that are in place. Carroll has some help in the form of what he calls his 52 eyes. That’s 52 cameras mounted throughout the school. From the office, Carroll can keep track of almost every corner of the building.
“The camera system here, I can actually zoom in onto the floor and see what’s laying on the floor. I can zoom in on a person’s face and move the camera around, this system in phenomenal.”
Q: Are camera’s important?
“Yes ma’m I can record, I can go back, if somebody gets into a fight I can see who threw the first punch, I can take a kid if he’s skipping I can follow him all the way through the building and find out where he goes. Smoking in a bathroom, I can see who comes out of the bathrooms into the hallways; I know who was the last person in who would be smoking. The cameras are phenomenal.”
Q: do you think it helps keep people more in line?
“Yes ma’m it does deter a lot of stuff.”
Carroll spends a lot of time walking the hallways and checking all the exterior doors to make sure they’re locked and not left open.
“Which is kind of hard when you’ve got almost 1,700 kids in the building, they’re going outside to go into the other side of the building so they leave the door open, you’ve got teachers that come in and out so I’m always trying to check the doors to make sure they’re locked, make sure nobody from the outside can get in. You walk by the bathrooms, take a real quick smell to make sure nobody’s smoking in there, and if you see a kid walking down the hallway you make sure they’re supposed to be where they’re supposed to be and not out causing havoc.”
Carroll says most of the problems he sees involve bullying on social networking sites that spill over into the school day… and drugs.
“Drugs are one of the big things. If we can get the drugs out of the building it’s better for everybody.”
Q: Is that a big issue in any high school?
“Yeah, drugs are pretty big. Prescription drugs, they can get them from their parents. Marijuana they can get from anywhere. You got the states now that are legalizing it. It’s one of the big issues.”
As Carroll walks the hallways he greets teachers and talks with students. Carroll enjoys working on cars and trucks, so between classes one student stops for a short conversation about that. Carroll is dressed in his police uniform wearing the belt that holds the tools he needs to enforce the law. He says the students will ask him questions about his career.
“A lot of the kids always ask questions about my taser, pepper spray, what it’s like being a cop. Probably the biggest deterrent on my person is my taser. A lot of kids really are intrigued by that thing. Of course I tell them I’ve been hit several times with a taser. They ask me what it feels like so I try to explain to them that it’s not something you want to have happen to you, get tased. So a lot of them, they like to joke about the taser ‘come on Carroll tase me, tase me’ I’m like no you don’t want to do that it’s not fun, it’s not fun.”
Q: There’s a lot of debate going on (regarding school safety) what’s your opinion?
“Arming teachers, I think the only person inside the building that should have a gun should be a police officer. If you want to put an armed person in an elementary school put a police officer or a retired police officer in that building, either in plain clothes or a uniformed officer in elementary schools. If you don’t have the correct training you shouldn’t have a firearm inside of a school.”
“Only way you can really protect the school is put a 12 foot fence around it, two armed guards at a gate, one way in, one way out, metal detectors. The kids don’t want to come to that, that’s just like a jail, they don’t need that.”
Q: do the students talk about it with you when things like that happen?
“Yes ma’m, some students will come in and ask how could it have been prevented? What would you do if that situation happened? I try to talk them as much as I can.”
Carroll’s marked sheriff’s department vehicle sits in front of Musselman High. Having a visible police presence, strong security system and emergency plan serve as a deterrent to students who might break the law and, Carroll hopes, offers a degree of safety as students go about the business of learning.