Resource officers have vital role in local schools

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From left, Dennis Bain, the current school resource officer at Flathead High School, Wade Rademacher, the first SRO, and Cory Clarke, former SRO at Flathead and current team leader. There are also school resource officers at Glacier High School and Kalispell Middle School. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Nineteen years ago, Kalispell Police Department Administrative Capt. Wade Rademacher was designated as the department’s first school resource officer and assigned to Flathead High School and Kalispell Middle School.

At the time, department leadership was interested in community-orientated policing, he said.

“It’s a philosophy of police departments engaging with the community, and working together to promote public safety, rather than the police department saying, ‘OK, here’s the job we’re going to do,’ and tell its citizens, ‘here’s how we’re going to police you.’ It’s a way to get citizens involved — receiving input from them, and also, us sharing information with the community and they can make themselves and their neighborhood safer,” Rademacher said.

While attending a seminar to train for his new assignment, the Columbine High School mass shooting occurred on April 20, 1999, where 13 people were killed in Colorado.

The Colorado school shooting was a pivotal turning point in how the nation’s schools approached security. The national discussion on school security and resource officers most recently was renewed with the criticism of a school resource officer’s response of not entering a building where an active shooter killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida — and the praise of a Maryland school resource officer who neutralized an active shooter after he fatally shot another student on March 20 at Great Mills High School.

Today in Kalispell Public Schools, there are three school resource officers stationed at Flathead and Glacier high schools and Kalispell Middle School. These officers are also responsible for Linderman Education Center and six elementary schools, in addition to private schools such as Trinity Lutheran and St. Matthew’s Catholic School.

Columbia Falls and Whitefish school districts also have school resource officers from their respective police departments. In 2017, Flathead Valley Community College added a school resource officer.

The concept of school resource officers was fairly new to the Flathead Valley in the 1990s. Nationally, the concept of police in schools began in the 1950s, but wasn’t widespread until the late ’60s. In a July 29, 1997, Daily Inter Lake article, Columbia Falls Police Department designated an officer to handle school-related crimes or incidents after the Drug, Abuse, Resistance, Education program, also known as DARE, was phased out because the community’s desire to have a police presence to educate students and become a “familiar face.”

When Rademacher was assigned to work full time out of Flathead, former Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner said in an April 24, 1999, article, that the intention was to have a working officer who could build rapport with students, staff and parents and was quoted as saying the position “will be more than a guard. He’s not there as a warden,” rather, the officer would serve as a positive role model and school/police department liaison who could mediate conflicts, work on security, investigate crimes, make arrests or write citations and patrol schools in addition to counseling and educating students, staff and parents on law enforcement careers, crime prevention and criminal-justice related procedures.

These ideas remain the focus of the school resource officer program.

When Rademacher first went into Flathead, it took time for students to warm up to a police presence. The incidents that resulted in a trip to the principal’s office, at worst, a suspension or expulsion, now could potentially lead to an arrest. At the middle school, he said students were more receptive and inquisitive.

While there are arrests made, it is not very common and typically school resource officers are doing a lot of mediation work, according to Rademacher. He said there are situations where making an arrest could be a response, but is not the best solution. He used a student making threats, for example. While they could qualify as committing a crime, he said “it’s better to get the people to sit down and try and discuss it, work things out, or at least get them to understand where their actions may lead them,” he said. “Let’s think about what we’re doing. Let’s make better decisions.”

Incidents officers have dealt with at the high school level are drug and alcohol use or possession, cyberbullying, bullying and thefts, according to Glacier School Resource Officer Dennis Bain. At the Kalispell Middle School, Officer Michelle O’Neil said she has dealt with possession of tobacco and other illegal substances, lost items, fights and disagreements, in addition to taking disclosures of abuse and assisting staff in reporting a student’s disclosure.

School resource officers also conduct investigations. In the past, this has included incidents involving vandalism, assault and cyber extortion. The officers also inform parents about potential threats or scams — especially in the sphere of online and social media activity — and, one time, led self-defense training for female students.

Rademacher said at first it took time for him to develop what his role in schools looked like, informed by the National Association of School Resource Officers triad model of being an “educator (presenter), informal counselor/mentor and law enforcement officer.”

In order to work in schools, Kalispell police spend a week of specialized training through the association.

“We can enforce criminal laws. We can’t enforce school rules,” Rademacher said. “That’s something the training helped prepare us for. There is a line here.

“As police officers, we’re still obligated to the same policies, procedures and laws that police officers on the street have to use. So, if I walk by a locker and I smell marijuana in it, I can’t open the locker and search it. However, a school official, if they walk by a locker and smell marijuana in it, they can search it,” he said.

Even how police speak to staff is important.

“If I were to smell marijuana in a locker I could go tell a principal, ‘Hey I smell marijuana in this locker,’ and then the principal could decide on their own if they want to go search that locker. It has to be their decision. I can’t go up to the principal and say, ‘Hey, I smell marijuana in that locker — you need to go search it because then I’m directing them and they’re acting as my agent,” he explained.

This means school resource officers work closely with staff and administrators, said FVCC Resource Officer Cory Clarke, who was Flathead’s former school resource officer. Clarke currently serves on the campus’ behavior intervention team in addition to helping organize “Run, Lock, Fight” active-shooter training.

“The whole tenet of this is to be proactive,” Clarke said.

Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau said he views the officers as an added layer of on-site security, but more importantly, they establish positive relationships with students and staff so that if anyone sees concerning activities they are comfortable reporting it.

“Their overall task is providing safe and orderly environments in our school,” Flatau said. “We do not want to see increase in adolescent arrests.”

Kalispell Public Schools pay 75 percent of the cost, and the city foots 25 percent of an entry-level officer’s salary. The officers going into schools have years of experience on the police force.

The Kalispell Police Department typically requests officers who apply for the school detail to commit to a minimum two-year term to establish that rapport.

Clarke, who spent five years at Flathead and is the team leader for the police department’s school resource officer team, is an advocate of officers spending up to four years.

“That way, you can take a freshman class and see them all the way through to seniors,” Clarke said.

This is O’Neil’s third time working in the schools during her tenure with the police department. She has also worked as a child forensic interviewer and sex-crimes detective. O’Neil and Glacier School Resource Officer Wiley Fusaro spoke to one of the rewards of working with youth as helping “kids who may not be able to help themselves.” O’Neil echoed a similar statement in giving “them a voice in the things that are going on in their lives.”

Added O’Neil, “I try and show them that officers, whether in uniform our plain clothes, are still people they can relate to and talk to, while still holding them accountable for their actions.”

In his office at FVCC, Clarke has a greeting card on display that was sent by a student when he was stationed at Flathead. Part of the student’s sentiment explained how Clarke helped her with coping skills and to believe in herself when she didn’t. By the end of the interview, Clarke checked his phone and saw it was a request to transport a student struggling with suicidal ideation to the hospital.

The opportunity to impact lives is always present.

“An SRO needs to be compassionate, patient, and adaptable to change,” Bain said. “Each day is different, so you need to be able to handle a wide variety of situations.”

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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