By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
With only six months on the job as a school resource officer, David Zavala, of the Keizer Police Department, had to ask his colleagues at Whiteaker Middle School if they knew of any students who had been positively affected by his presence.
He was taken aback when both people asked rattled off the same name with barely a thought.
“‘You’ve turned him around, he talks to you, shares information with you,’ they said. They’ve seen his attitude change not only towards law enforcement, but school, too. His grades are up, he’s playing football and wrestles. They credited me with getting him to be more involved with school. He also takes on a leadership role with a certain group of kids that are always on the radar and I’ve been encouraging him to take that leadership in a positive direction. He used to be proud of being in a gang, but he certainly doesn’t dress the part anymore,” Zavala said.
If approved in its current form, Zavala’s job as a school resource officer (SRO) at Whiteaker will be cut from the Salem-Keizer School District’s budget and the duty will fall to Officer Jay Prall, a longtime school resource officer who will have to pull double duty covering Whiteaker and Claggett Creek middle schools. SRO presence at elementary schools, which both Zavala and Prall handle at the various schools feeding into Keizer’s middle schools, will likely become more reactive than proactive.
The Salem-Keizer School District covers $60,000 of an SRO’s yearly salary and equipment needs and 10 percent of the salary for the sergeant that supervises the program. In order to make up for projected losses expected to crater teaching and support staff to the tune of 400-600 employees, the district is putting SRO emphasis on middle and high schools.
Tough times call for tough decisions, but both the schools and police have discovered many beneficial aspects of the program.
“When they’re out in the hallways, it’s an opportunity to interact with police officers on a less formal basis. The students get to know them as people. [The SROs] become good role models and even give students access to a job they might be interested in one day,” said Laura Perez, Whiteaker principal.
KPD puts extra time and effort in pairing the right officer with the duty of the SROs, said Chief H. Marc Adams of the Keizer Police Department, all three current Keizer SRO’s are products of the city’s schools.
“It’s really become a specialty, just like being a detective and the officers who do it, love it,” Adams said.
For Zavala, Prall, and McNary SRO Brian Hunter, the job offers little in the way or predictability. Students, depending on their age, come to them for any of a number of reasons. As a result, they’ve assumed the role of mentor, counselor, mediator and even parent depending on the rapport they’ve established with the student.
Prall has been known to strike deals with students to get their grades up in exchange for a small cheese pizza. More than once, Zavala has been asked by students if he’s seen their latest grades and dragged to a computer to be shown if he hasn’t.
“The only time most people have encounters with the police they’re either having their doors kicked in or given a ticket, they’re negative encounters. When we contact a student in the schools it lets them know that we’re normal people,” he said.
The rapport and relationships SROs develop also payoff in ways other than higher grades or better attendance records, if patrol officers or the SROs themselves contact students outside of school they can trade on their relationships to bring resolution to conflicts. Likewise, if students are being subjected to abuse at home, the SROs can contact them at school Р a safe environment away from the source of the abuse.
Sgt. Lance Inman, who supervises the Keizer school SRO program likens each school to a small town and the SROs as the sheriff who knows everybody’s name.
“SRO programs make students feel comfortable around police officers and recognize that they are part of a system of support. There’s already a barrier between youth and authority and SROs break that down,” Inman said.
Seemingly innocuous events at the schools can also provide the SROs with the opportunity to nip potential problems in the bud.
“I had a call where a teacher had information where they thought a student was under the influence of drugs. It’s not illegal for a minor to be under the influence, but the school might want to take some action and the teacher wasn’t trained on what signs to look for and they asked me to talk to him,” Zavala said.
Zavala had a conversation with the student, who turned out not to be under the influence, but it led him to the arrest of three students for possession and one for delivery of controlled substances. Two other students were suspended for having knives on campus.
Incident rates have dropped at Keizer schools, but the number of arrests on the city’s 10 school campuses increased from 39 four years ago to 100 in the most recent year. That cause for concern among KPD officials because no one can say what actions have been prevented merely by having a prominent police presence in Keizer schools.
“What concerns us the most about limited staffing is safety and security is that it’s probably the best deterrent to any type of violence on a school campus. We haven’t had a school shooting and we can’t directly attribute that to the SRO program, but it’s helped,” Inman said.