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Schools add new ‘resource’ in 2013-14

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By Ashley Scoby

Law enforcement will be roaming the grounds of Spencer County schools this fall, following an agreement between Spencer County Schools and the City of Taylorsville. Taylorsville Police Officers Damon Jewell and Kevin Mills will primarily be the district’s part-time school resource officers.
As school begins in August, Mills will actually split duties with Officer Kenneth Bledsoe until Jewell is able to begin work as a seasonal employee on Sept. 1. After that date, Jewell will primarily handle the SRO responsibilities, and Mills will fill in on the days Jewell goes to work at the Louisville Regional Airport. Bledsoe will still be available to cover for either officer.
The City of Taylorsville will fund the positions, but be reimbursed 100 percent by the school board.
“We have felt the need to have the position for a couple years now,” said board chairperson Jeanie Stevens. “In light of everything that has taken place nationwide in the last year or so, we decided that we had to do it to protect the kids.”
After Sept. 1, Jewell and Mills will split duties and be assigned randomly throughout each week to Taylorsville and Spencer County elementaries, Spencer County Middle School, Spencer County High School and Hillview Academy. Responsibilities as “counselor,” “teacher” and “law enforcement officer” are all part of an SRO’s role, according to Lee Ann Morrison, a research fellow with the Kentucky Center for School Safety. The Center is responsible for training and technical assistance for Kentucky’s SROs.
“The most important part of what they do is building that relationship with the student body because not only do they serve as a counselor and teacher, but they’re also able to get information and use it to stop other incidents from occurring,” Morrison said. “SROs are not security guards; they are trained law enforcement officers.”
The Center for School Safety provides non-mandatory training — basic and advanced — for SROs across the state. By the time Jewell and Mills attempted to enroll in a class, it was already at capacity. According to Police Chief Toby Lewis, schools across the country have rushed to hire SROs, especially in the wake of tragic school-related events like the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.
Currently, 244 SROs are employed throughout Kentucky, according to Morrison.
Preventing the kind of tragedy that inspired many of their appointments is only one responsibility held by school resource officers, but it is a crucial one.
“If we lived in a perfect world where we had plenty of money and so forth, we would like to put officers in each school, but we’ve got to understand it is a school,” Lewis said. “It’s not an institution where we have armed guards on the roof. It’s not the White House … But one thing I don’t want to do is answer to a parent who’s asking, ‘Why didn’t you do more?’ We hope to be able to prevent that. If something does occur, I want to be able to say, ‘We’re definitely trying.’”
Bledsoe, who will primarily perform his police duties outside of the school buildings after Sept. 1, emphasized the relationship between SROs and the rest of the police force. A link between what happens in school and what happens on the streets exists, he says.
“You run into kids on the street, and maybe there’s something they’ve heard and haven’t passed onto their parents,” hesaid. “They can stop a school resource officer and say, ‘Hey, there’s going to be a fight at McDonald’s. You may want to look for this.’ We all work together and it all goes back and forth.”
Acting as a deterrent to bullying and violence will also be a primary concern for the newly-hired resource officers. According to the National Association of School Resource Officers, 828,000 of 12- to 18-year-olds in 2010 experienced “nonfatal victimizations at school,” including 470,000 incidents of theft and 359,000 incidents of other violence.
“It can be something as simple as a handshake passing a note to an officer to say, ‘So-and-so is picking on me’ or ‘There’s supposed to be a fight today in the cafeteria,’” Lewis said.
Jewell said, “I like having the ability to maybe be able to lead them down a good path. Even if you’re not in the school setting, you still have that influence on children. Maybe it’s that kid who’s had a hard time or who’s had a bad experience with bullies before that needs a little extra help.”
That kind of mentoring is part of what makes a school resource officer such a unique component of a school system. Although Jewell and Mills will be in school as trained law enforcement officers, they are also there to build relationships, mentor children and provide an outlet for staff and students when they have information that needs to be shared.
“They command the respect of being an officer,” Lewis said of Spencer County’s two primary resource officers. “But on the other side, they’re very approachable by kids.”
For Jewell, that approachability stems from his experiences with his own children. With a 17-year-old and a 12-year-old in the school system, Jewell says he is “in tune” with what students do for fun, the kind of music they like and essentially what makes them tick.
Jewell’s roots in Spencer County also give him a special kind of attachment to the area and his new job.
“This is my home,” he said. “This is my community. I’ve got two kids in school here. No matter where I’ve lived, this is home. I feel like I could do a pretty good job with the kids. I interact with a lot of them already.”
Officer Mills did not respond to interview requests by print time.
Lewis was confident that the school board had gotten the two men that would be perfect as school resource officers in Jewell and Mills.
“Kevin Mills is a father of three and really a dad figure. He’s great with kids,” Lewis said. “Damon Jewell, he’s a father, too. He’s easy to get along with.”
With those men at the helm of the new resource officer program throughout Spencer County schools, not all problems with violence, drug usage or theft will be solved. But Lewis thinks the newly created position is a great place to start and the benefits of having his men in uniform at the schools far outweigh any potential drawbacks.
“Do I think it’s going to end all drug use in school or drinking or everything else in school?” he said. “No, I don’t. But they will be a deterrent. They will be somebody that the kids can pass along information to and hopefully stop any bullying that’s taking place.”