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From counselor to cop

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune School resource officer Mike Jackson walks through the hallways of McLoughlin Middle School on Tuesday, Jan. 11.
School Resource officers face ‘a spectrum’ of situations in K-12 institutions as job has evolved; debate over their need persists

When Medford police officer Mike Jackson was reading a story to Jackson Elementary School students, he could not help but notice one of them was “hiding” under a desk.

The instructor determined the student was not creating a real distraction, and the young child stayed in that spot while Jackson read the award-winning book “Officer Buckle & Gloria.”

As students filed out of the room after the reading, Jackson extended his hand for the shy student to give him a fist-bump. The student reciprocated.

Jackson has often thought about why the boy’s reaction to him changed from hesitancy to confidence.

“The fact that … this kid went from a place of hiding … to bumping knuckles with me, I feel like maybe I accomplished something,” said Jackson, one of four school resource officers within the Medford School District.

Medford schools aren’t the only places you’ll find these types of officers, who also work in community police precincts. SROs are also posted at other school districts in the Rogue Valley, including Central Point, where they helped investigate a student who made a threat at Crater High School.

Officials in Michigan credit a school resource officer for being one of the first to confront 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, accused of opening fire at Oxford High School, killing four people and injuring seven more.

But these officers, wearing a full police uniform equipped with weapons, not only act when law enforcement matters arise at any particular school — they’re also teachers and counselors.

“There are usually two groups of people that get a standing ovation anytime when we do have the opportunity to come together as a district, and that’s our custodians and SROs,” said Ron Havniear, director of facilities and leadership development for the Medford School District. “What they do on a daily basis is nothing short of a significant challenge, but they do it well. They’re truly part of the team.”

He said there are four SROs in the district, posted primarily at South Medford and North Medford high schools, as well as Hedrick and McLoughlin middle schools. They also go to the other schools that don’t have a designated SRO.

“For right now, I feel like we have adequate coverage. They’re very busy and engaged,” Havniear said.

When the district adds Oakdale Middle School, which recently got its official name, officials will likely add a new SRO, he went on to say.

“That way, all the middle school and high schools would have one at their home base,” Havniear said.

SRO duties

Jackson, who came from San Jose to Medford to raise his family, joined the city’s police department in the early 2000s, but did not start as an SRO for the Medford School District.

When the opportunity became available, however, Jackson gave it serious thought because he liked working with kids and wanted to learn more about keeping them safe.

“I probably intended to do the job for a few years (and) like most folks in most locations, move on to the next thing,” he said. “After a couple years of being a school resource officer, I realized I’m not going to be done with this anytime soon.”

He called it “one of the most positive jobs one can do in law enforcement,” because it is one that does not not strictly deal with investigating criminal matters.

“You get to do a lot of other things that are way more positive,” Jackson said. “It’s an opportunity for the kids to interact with a police officer in the course of their normal day, not because something awful has just happened and someone needed to call the cops.”

For Jackson, there is no such thing as a typical day for an SRO. But his duties are based on the “triad model,” which means that an SRO is three things: teacher, counselor and police officer.

“Those three things in that order,” Jackson said. “Ideally, I would be a teacher and a counselor a whole heck of a lot more than a cop.”

The teaching aspect might involve not only reading books to students, but teaching them what police officers do.

The SRO counseling role is considered “informal” compared to school officials whose sole job it is to do that, Jackson explained.

“(I told) a kid, ‘we become like the people we hang out with,’” he said. “If you’re with a group of friends who are all cursing like sailors, what is your language like? But if you’re in your lab group and you're doing your work and nobody’s using profanity, are you going to use it? Probably not.”

And then there’s the “cop” aspect of an SRO, Jackson said, which runs the gauntlet from issuing citations to students to responding to a school shooting, if that situation arose.

“Most enforcement issues that I’m dealing with, they’re fairly minor in the world of law enforcement,” Jackson said. “If making the kinds of arrests that make the front page of your paper was something that I was interested in, I certainly would not be a school resource officer. Being an SRO is less exciting than a patrol. We investigate less crimes than our detectives.”

That’s not to say Jackson hasn’t made felony arrests at schools; he has. In addition, he is ready and able to respond to an active shooter if they came to any school in the district.

“If there’s someone there that’s going to try and kill my kid, I am going to do anything and everything I have to do to stop that person,” Jackson said. “Law enforcement can be 99% mundane and 1% sheer terror.”

The one thing SROs are not expected to do is enforce the school code of conduct.

“A student using their cellphone in class, they’re not breaking the law,” Jackson said.

Though a school staff member could certainly ask an SRO to “stand by” while the rule is being enforced, particularly if the student in question has a history of disruption.

“Sometimes, just our very presence will prevent something like that from occurring,” Jackson said.

Havniear hopes that the SROs’ presence is more reassuring than menacing.

“What I see being more effective is just the fact that because they're there and they have a presence and … they have a lot of trust built up,” he said. “I feel like that pays dividends when we get to larger-scale issues that are dynamic and fast-paced and changing.”

An evolving role

The job of SROs has evolved since the first ones were introduced in Flint, Michigan, in the 1950s.

“The original idea had nothing to do with danger to schools or school shootings,” Jackson said. “It was all about, ‘Hey, things happen at school and sometimes we have to send police officers there to deal with. What if we just assign officers to the school so that all this positive stuff can happen and we can build those relationships, and then when the enforcement happens, it can happen.’”

As the decades went on, SRO roles changed, but it got to the point where they were playing “dumb cop,” by enforcing mundane school rules, according to Jackson.

That era is over.

“We are now more involved and check more boxes than the original idea of the SRO,” Jackson said. “Certainly my job has changed quite a bit in the last decade and a half.”

An SRO’s job can include many facets of law enforcement and public safety, offering expertise on safety issues, including risk and threat assessment; assisting in lock-down drills; contributing to crisis planning, including training teachers on how to respond when face-to-face with an active shooter.

Havniear said the district is experiencing “an increase of situations to deal with,” but did not elaborate on what.

“It’s hard to teach school if you don’t have a safe, secure environment, and I think the SROs are critical in helping us do that,” he said. “It’s profound, the spectrum of situations that they deal with on a daily basis. …. It could be as simple as traffic in the morning to graffiti at our sites or theft.”

SROs: stay or go?

But while SROs appear valued in communities like Medford, in other parts of Oregon and numerous states, there’s a debate over whether they should even exist.

Last year, Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry announced to her district’s school board that she would not renew SRO contracts with local law enforcement for the remainder of the year or next.

She blamed “mission drift” and lack of adherence to national standards among the reasons for letting the SROs go, according to an article from The Statesman Journal.

Going forward “school safety and discipline will be approached in a new, yet-to-be-determined way,” she said, with officers being brought into schools only for specific cases.

Salem police Chief Trevor Womack praised the SROs in a statement for their three decades of service, but said the decision would allow his department the ability to redirect their resources.

While not mentioning specific communities, Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, told the Mail Tribune in written responses that some SROs have operated in ways contrary to his organization’s standards.

“This could include treating students of color differently than other students, unnecessarily referring students to the juvenile justice system or failing to build positive relationships with students, especially students who fear police,” he wrote.

It is for instances like the ones Canady mentioned that lead some activist groups to criticize SROs, claiming they contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” That concept is something Jackson talked about.

“The idea is that actions taken by SROs and school administrators are contributing to kids who get in trouble at school ultimately becoming criminals later on in life,” he said. “By and large, the people who believe that SROs contribute to this pipeline are largely people who don’t like the police.”

While he understands the trust gap between members of the community and the police, Jackson says emphatically this “pipeline” perception of SROs is false.

“Every day that I get to have a mentoring, counseling or coaching session with a kid about crime prevention … and rightly advise whether something needs to be handled by the school, the police or both, I am demonstrating that I have nothing to do with any school-to-prison pipeline,” Jackson said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.