At a young age, most children are taught that “police officers are our friends.” But by the time they hit middle school or high school that idea often evaporates, and may turn into defiance. Rocky River police are hoping to maintain trust through a program which makes a police officer a regular part of students’ day.
Police Chief Kelly Stillman along with officers Tracey Hill, Mike Bernhardt and North Olmsted officer Jim Carbone, gave a presentation to the school board at its last committee session, outlining the School Resource Officer (SRO) program.
“I come here and appeal on a personal note to start the process,” Stillman told the board, stating that the program would enhance the positive relationship the department has fostered with the schools. “We’ve gained so much and have established a firm, solid, relationship with the schools. We are becoming as one, and we can provide something extremely unique,” said Stillman, adding, “We need your help to do this collectively. This is about joining a partnership, not finding bad kids.”
Carbone, the SRO for North Olmsted schools told the board that the program began as a pilot in 2002. “I can’t tell you how great the impact has been,” he said adding that he serves as liaison between the schools, students and the community, with a three pronged approach: enforcement, education, and counseling. Carbone stated that “90 percent” of his work deals with the latter, guiding students through everything from typical teenage concerns to serious problems at home.
In the area of education, a relationship is established in elementary school, said Carbone, with some informal programs, and then is intensified through middle and high school, where he speaks to health and government classes. “We set the groundwork in elementary school, and the uniform has a huge impact,” said Carbone, adding that when speaking to older students about community and laws, “It wouldn’t go over as well if they didn’t know me.”
Carbone said he wears his uniform and drives his police cruiser to the schools where he parks in a prominent place. “They always know I’m there,” he stated. He added that once the students get over their initial curiosity, the uniform and gun are not a factor. “The gun is intriguing at first, but now is not a factor. That immaturity factor you have at first is completely gone,” said Carbone.
As for enforcement, Carbone reported, “We definitely don’t have that many issues. We’re not dealing with the problems we had ten years ago.” As example, Carbone said drinking before football games had been a problem until he began pregame tailgate parties. “That first one I had a microphone duct taped to my patrol car playing music from the radio,” he recalled. Initially drawing 55 students, the parties now can number 600. “Now it’s something they look forward to. It shows you can have fun without drugs and alcohol,” he said.
Fielding questions from board members regarding counseling qualifications, Hill, juvenile detective and DARE officer stated, “That’s part of our job from day one. We try to guide people to counseling and channel them to what they need. A lot of what we do is setting up the kids with what they need.”
As for funding to the project, Carbone stated that half of the cost is covered by a federal grant and half picked up by the city. He said the grant must be applied for each year, and that the amount will hopefully rise to 75 percent.
“We may have to work collectively on funding,” said Stillman, adding that city officials will be consulted during planning of the program. “We will do everything we can to help you,” he stated.
Stillman added that the department has applied for a grant, which Hill said was due on May 5. He added that the funding comes from the same grant that backs DARE. “We should know within the next few months,” he said of the outcome.
If approved by the school and city officials, Stillman said it is not certain that the program would be in place at the start of the next school year. “I’m down one person now and we would have to be at full strength for Officer Bernhardt to be in the schools nine months out of the year,” he stated. Bernhardt has been selected to serve as SRO should the program be put in place. Stillman did say that a part-time arrangement was an option.