Bigfork, Evergreen get school resource officers

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A cooperative effort has resulted in two new student resource officers in Flathead Valley schools.

Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino this week announced the new officers will be in the Evergreen and Bigfork school districts.

The partnership is the result of combined efforts by Flathead Electric Cooperative, both school districts, the Sheriff’s Department and Flathead County.

Flathead Electric’s board of trustees provided an initial grant, funded by unclaimed capital credit dollars, to develop school resource officer programs. Retired capital credit checks are issued to current and former members of the cooperative each year. Despite the co-op’s best efforts to find members, some of those checks go unclaimed. Once checks remain unclaimed for five or more years, Montana law requires Flathead Electric, as a member-owned, not-for-profit cooperative, to either use that money for educational purposes in its service territory or allocate it to the state’s general fund.

Flathead Electric has used the money for several years to provide hundreds of scholarships and other educational opportunities for local students and will continue to do so. The co-op’s board of trustees, however, decided to look at the funding and determine how it could further impact the community. After careful consideration, the board elected to support the development of school resource officer programs in local school districts that are not currently served by one.

“Our intention is to reinvest these dollars back into the communities we serve to help local law enforcement provide safer learning environments,” Flathead Electric General Manager Mark Johnson said.

The co-op’s partial funding for the programs will be based on estimated wages and benefits of employing two school resource officers in Flathead County, with the remainder to be obtained by the county, city, and/or schools in which they will serve. The co-op’s funding will sunset in five years, at which point the intent is for the programs to be self-sustaining.

The grant is for $81,562 in 2019, with step increases each year for the next five years.

Johnson said the co-op believes this investment will have a positive and lasting impact on both our community and on the cooperative.

“Not only do school resource officers provide for safe learning environments, but they also provide valuable resources to our teachers and school staff. Additionally, they are able to develop strategies to resolve problems affecting youth and protecting all students so they can reach their fullest potentials though their education,” he said.

Heino and school officials have embraced the programs and are working on logistics. They share a consensus as to the positive impacts having officers in schools provides for all concerned.

A recent study lists numerous benefits of SRO programs, including:

• A decrease in the high school dropout rate;

• Prevention or minimization of property damage in the school and surrounding areas;

• Prevention of student injuries and even death due to violence, drug overdoses, etc.;

• Reduction of the likelihood that a student will get a criminal record;

• An increase of the likelihood that students, particularly those with mental-health issues, will get the help they need from social service and health care systems; and

• An increase in feelings of safety among students, staff, and those who live in surrounding communities.

Heino said that while one officer will be housed in Evergreen (Brandy Arnoux) and another in Bigfork (Paula Sullivan), where there currently are none, the officers will be of assistance throughout the entire Flathead Valley, bringing resources to areas not currently served by a school resource officer.

“These officers will also help out at our rural area schools, as well as supplement our patrol during the summer months, which is dearly needed,” Heino said.

Evergreen School District Superintendent Laurie Barron and Bigfork School District Superintendent Matt Jensen both say they are looking forward to this new partnership.

“Having a school resource officer does so much more than provide additional safety, though that is our primary concern,” they said in a joint statement. “A school resource officer also serves as a positive law enforcement role model to students, builds a trusting relationship among law enforcement and the community, and helps deter and reduce juvenile crime and thus the financial and societal burden placed upon all of us in the community when juveniles are detained in the justice system.”

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

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