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We're not in Mayberry anymore

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By Ken Begley

Do you know what a “School Resource Officer” is?  

I sure didn’t until about a month ago.  

But I do now, and it’s important for you to know, as well.  

A lot of times I avoid talking about tough, important topics because it’s too difficult to address them properly in the limited amount of space I have.  Please bear with me as I attempt to tie together school resource officers, Washington County High School and our local school board.  

School resource officer (SRO) programs have been in U.S. schools since the 1960s.  SROs really kicked up speed in the late 1990s when schools began experiencing unusual increases in violence, drug, and alcohol use.  They’re a tool for crime prevention in which individuals with a background in law enforcement are placed in schools.  Many SROs are officers from local or county police departments and voluntarily request assignment to the program.

These individuals are given specialized training in dealing with children and in-school settings.  The SRO focuses on law enforcement, counseling, student bullying, and law-related education of our young people.  They become a part of the school, but have police powers and act as a liaison with the local law enforcement agencies.  During summer months, they typically go back to work with whatever police department they come from and take their knowledge of the student body with them.

What makes the SRO program so special and frequently very successful is the emphasis on prevention of crime.  No, they don’t sit around and wait for some juvenile to act up so they can be  “cuffed and stuffed,” then carted off to jail.

The properly trained, selected and motivated SRO becomes involved with the student population.  He teaches and gets to know students as individually as the teachers do.  He helps counsel those kids who are at the tipping point between being a hardworking taxpayer or ending up in serious trouble with the law.  

Typically, students tend to look on an SRO differently than teachers or principals.

Students are more likely to talk to an SRO when something bad is about to go down.  Kids prone to making trouble tend to be more cautious because this individual, unlike the teachers, has law enforcement authority behind their title.  In short, you’ll know more about drug dealing, potential fights, student bullying and so on, helping to either prevent or stop it in its tracks.  The result is a school environment where teaching and learning can be safer and more of a pleasure.  

When all the prevention part of their job fails, then the SRO is there as the final option of protecting our children against harm by what means is necessary.

So, why do we need this now if we haven’t had it before?

Quite simply, we don’t live in “Mayberry” anymore.

I do know something about kids and young adults in today’s society.

I’m on the St. Dominic School Board.  My wife works for St. Dominic as an office manager.  I have 20 nieces and nephews scattered about the state and nation.  My daughter was the valedictorian for the WCHS graduating class of 2009.  I will have two kids at WCHS this year.  I have two more kids at St. Dominic.  My eldest will be at U of L this fall.  I’ve taught college kids in ROTC as an Army Reserve instructor for over four years.  I taught kids out of high school and newly in the military for over six years at Fort Knox again as an Army Reserve Instructor.  

You know what?  I’ve seen and heard about everything, and I’ve come down to one sad, fundamental fact.

A lack of stability in the family, a decline in religious devotion, along with the culture of violent video games, movies and entertainment, combined with drug and alcohol use for escaping reality is producing a much higher percentage of angry and self-destructive individuals in the next generation as a whole.  

That’s a mouthful, but it covers it all.  

In addition, a new danger, organized youth gangs, are on the move from big cities to small towns like our own, bringing a higher level of violence and drug dealing.  Believe it or not, some are moving into surrounding counties from Louisville and other big cities.  

This can bring added danger to all of our lives, and particularly the kids.  Youth gangs spread most rapidly in areas that haven’t taken preventative measures to stomp it out before it grows into a full-blown major problem.

The good news has been that Washington County High School, for all its published news reports of a spike in student misconduct and unrest this last year, has been relatively safe in comparison to other school systems.  Our worst day would be most schools’ best day.  

My question to the people of Washington County is, “Do you want to keep it that way?”

WCHS Principal Leon Smith has approached the Washington County School Board about adding an SRO to our high school at a previous board meeting.  There was a large crowd of parents, teachers and school administrators that approached the Board again on June 11 with an impassioned plea to follow up on this anti-violence and anti-crime initiative.

Currently, our school board is considering the proposed new program, but has not committed to it.

I sympathize with these board members.  

As I said, I’m a school board member at St. Dominic, and all we try to do is come up with ways to raise money and reduce spending in these hard economic times.  It’s so hard to know what to do, and each of these board members have our school system’s best interest at heart.  I believe that.  Currently, I understand there would be funding for only one year if an SRO could be placed into the high school.  

Why not give it shot and see if the community falls in behind this program?  

I think it would be a mistake if so many of our teachers and administrators feel it is necessary to have an SRO and we don’t all pull together to make it happen.  After all, they are friends and neighbors that have “boots on the ground” and deal with the student population throughout the year.  Who else would know more about the situation than these people?

Final point.

I met an old, battle-harden, three-star general many years ago who said he could go to the Vietnam War Memorial and show you the name of every individual that died in combat because of his mistaken judgments while in command of a battalion.

“Its a terrible thing,” he said.  “I live with it everyday.  I don’t want anyone to have to go through that.”

We don’t want one of those sad memorials in our town by failing to act on this measure.

It has happened elsewhere.