Colorado school resource officers wear multiple hats
DENVER (AP) — Officer Dana Gerber is a mentor, teacher, confidant, in-house parent and the source of a few goofy rumors that keep Pomona High School students wondering and Gerber smiling during his hectic days.
The amiable Gerber, a 13-year-veteran of the Arvada Police Department, is not just the first-line of defense should a shooter decide to attack Pomona where he serves as a School Resource Officer. Gerber and other SROs are a centerpiece in a national debate over whether armed officers are helping to turn schools into prisons and students — especially minorities — into potential inmates.
Students of color, critics say, are being arrested for misbehavior once handled by school administrators and counselors, thanks largely to an increased police presence in schools. Colorado state Rep. Leslie Herod points to a 2016 report by Padres y Jovenos Unidos that said in Colorado, after a decade of steady reductions, the statewide school suspension rate grew by 19 percent during the 2014-15 school year. During that same period, there were 3.5 times more suspensions of black students than white students.
“Safety policies in schools that embrace more police will transform our school campuses to prison-like facilities and funnel more students of color into the criminal justice system,” Herod said.
Others say SROs are actually a calming presence in schools and keep troubled kids out of jail or prison. Schools must make sure they have the right person for the job, experts say.
“If the SRO job is considered nothing more than traffic duty in his or her department, then you are most likely to get a maverick SRO that is only going to go to school to bust some heads,” said Spencer Weiler, department chair and program coordinator of the University of Northern Colorado’s educational leadership and public studies program.
The best SROs see their job as counselors, educators and police officers all rolled into one package, Weiler said. “If SROs get the proper training and can be seen as part of a team that looks out for kids, an SRO program can be incredibly successful.”
A study by Canada’s Carleton University said SROs minimized property damage in schools, prevented student injuries and death and actually helped keep kids out of the juvenile jail system by providing quicker access to social service and health care systems.
“Every school could benefit from having an SRO,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
Gerber is among Colorado’s 200 school resource officers, all sworn police officers or deputies who are employed by law enforcement agencies and go through the same certification process as other police officers. They carry weapons and are also part of the police chain-of-command. They can make arrests like a patrol officer or detective.
There are 32 SROs and eight sergeants from seven law enforcement agencies working in Jefferson County schools and 16 SROs working Denver Public Schools. And their ranks could grow larger as Colorado lawmakers propose spending $35 million to beef up school security, including adding more SROs in school hallways. But some lawmakers say they want the funds for safety training and not more armed officers.
If more SROs are added in Colorado, that would mirror a national trend of more schools depending on police to keep the peace in hallways and classrooms. Armed police officers were present at least once a week in 43 percent of all public schools during the 2015-16 school year, compared with 31 percent of schools a decade before, according to data from a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.
The Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 dead, also helped renew focus on the conduct of SROs, after a video showed that a sheriff’s deputy at the school approached but did not enter the building where the attack was taking place.
What did not get as much publicity was that a SRO from an elementary school about four miles away drove to Stoneman and rushed into the school to help.
“I think what happens is that the training just kicks in, and you do what you have to do,” Gerber said.
Gerber, who works patrol in the summer when classes are out for the school year, said that without hesitation he would lay down his own life or even kill for the students he calls “my kids.”
“I think all the time about the potential of a mass casualty event happening at Pomona,” the 39-year-old father of three said recently. “I do play a lot of roles here and wear a lot of hats, but in the end the most important thing I do is make sure kids go home safe every day.”
“It doesn’t take long when a school resource officer is assigned a school to start referring to all the students as ‘my kids,’” Gerber said. “That’s how a school resource officer should feel about all the students. Even the ones that sometimes make bad decisions.”
School resource officers also are attuned to the unique problems facing kids, and they often volunteer for the work.
Gerber started out as a patrol officer but had counseled kids in the past and decided to apply for a slot as an SRO at Pomona. He caught on quickly that working in schools requires a certain flexibility in applying rules and regulations.
“You learn to pick your battles,” Gerber said, adding a “by the book” approach to law enforcement in schools sometimes doesn’t get to the root of what’s troubling a student.
“There are some kids who come from a home of utter chaos,” he said. “You learn to try and understand that and take it from there.”
After the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, law enforcement agencies in Jefferson County began building closer relationships with each other to help communicate and provide services, Gerber said. Daily, he’s on the telephone or radio talking to other jurisdictions about a student who might need help.
Gerber said he is usually the last resort should a student become a discipline problem. And he is restricted, like any police officer, on searches and seizures.
“I just can’t open up a kid’s backpack or locker,” he said. “I still have to follow the Fourth Amendment.”
In a safe in a corner of his office, he keeps the emergency equipment he would need should Pomona or any other school come under fire. He doesn’t think teachers can get the advanced training needed to handle that type of do-or-die situation.
“It’s a lot more than point and shoot,” Gerber said. “You can get to a very intense situation very quickly. And at what point does that situation call for deadly force?”
Gerber also teaches classes — self-defense, sexual assault prevention or his equipment is the focus of a science class — and he attends every football and basketball game and other school events. Prom, he admits, is not his favorite. “Some of those parties go to 3 a.m., and I am too old for that.”
Gerber’s door is almost always open, and students decorate the grease board hanging on his door with messages or corny jokes. They also come to him asking help or advice about a family crisis.
On one recent day, a student came into his office to talk about her boyfriend who might be suicidal. Following a closed-door session, Gerber contacted a patrol unit and then left to go to the boy’s home to check on him.
He also patrols the hallways, chatting with students and getting high-fives. Gerber, with a wink, also likes to joke about the unknown parts of the school, including the hidden swimming pool on the roof of Pomona. (There is no swimming pool).
Gerber’s easy-going style makes him approachable, especially for students who need help, Pomona senior Rachael McClure said. “I trust him a lot,” McClure said. “Sometimes I forget he’s a police officer.”
At the Denver Center for International Students at Montbello, Denver Police SRO Bernard Henry could be the busiest man at school and also the most popular.
Everywhere the lithe 27-year-DPD veteran goes on the expansive campus, Henry is greeted with fist-bumps and high-fives. He talks to nearly every student he meets, and they always have something to say to him.
Being accessible is important to Henry, who says being intimidating doesn’t always translate into being an effective cop, especially around kids.
“You learn a lot by using verbal judo skills,” Henry said. “Being an SRO you have a lot of face-to-face contact, you talk to people, not down to people. That’s when you can get to the root of a problem, and get that problem solved.”
“I like to think I’m like Bruce Lee,” Henry said. “Like water, you adapt and be flexible to every situation.”
Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com