By Heather Mullinix
Cumberland County Sheriff Butch Burgess has seen his officers prepare to enter dangerous situations without batting an eye. But when four officers prepared for their first day on a new assignment, Burgess found they were uncharacteristically nervous.
"They were scared to death," Burgess said, recalling the first day of the 2013-'14 school year.
Four officers were starting their new assignments as school resource officers in Cumberland County elementary schools, following an agreement between the sheriff's department and the school system to fund the program for the first year.
"We're short handed, but even the road officers thought it was important enough to bite the bullet and take on the extra load," said Burgess
With four deputies and eight elementary schools, Burgess has assigned each SRO to split his day between two schools. Deputy Jeff Fitzgerald serves Crab Orchard and Pine View elementary schools, Deputy Avery Aytes serves Brown and South Cumberland elementary schools, Deputy Kevin Davis services Stone and Homestead elementary schools and Deputy Ron Moore serves Pleasant Hill and North Cumberland elementary schools.
All but one of the officers has completed the county's Drug Endangered At-Risk (DEAR) Children program, which provides advanced training in working with children. They are scheduled to attend SRO training in Blount County in October.
And though the officers were nervous about the first day of their new assignments, Burgess said they were back in the office talking about the wonderful experience they'd had with the kids.
Now, just a few weeks into the school year, many are building bonds with the students and teachers, and even some of the parents.
"In the mornings, they'll open doors for the kids as they're getting out of cars and talk with them and the parents," Burgess said. "The teachers are learning how to utilize this resource and the principals are saying it's really taking a lot off their shoulders."
The department is working to increase communication between the deputies, the SROs and school system personnel. It all works hand-in-hand with the DEAR program and enhances the ability of these organizations to help catch kids before they fall through the cracks.
"This is where the rubber meets the road for all of these programs we have in Cumberland County," Burgess said. "The SRO is at the point of need and can bring all these things together."
But to work well, there needs to be communication between law enforcement, Department of Children's Services, the school system, health care providers, nonprofit agencies, and everyone with an interest in helping youth succeed.
"We're putting together a communication system that will flow, not just for us, but to keep everybody in the loop," Burgess said.
There are referral forms for teachers to refer a possible situation to law enforcement for investigation. The SRO can report that to officers to investigate, report back to the SRO and he can then work with the school on possible interventions and supports. Many times, law enforcement is aware of things in the student's history the school system doesn't know about, such as family situations.
"We can bring that information the schools didn't have and we can utilize the DEAR program to get the help that child or family needs," Burgess said.
DEAR refers families to area nonprofit agencies to help with needs they have or barriers they find in getting work and improving their situations. It could also be identifying a need for mentors.
The department has also modified its DEAR referral form to include the school of each child in families involved in domestic situations, drug arrests and other situations, as well as referrals from schools regarding attendance, behavior or interaction with parents.
"The SROs can pay more attention," Burgess explained, adding he'd seen the benefit of having officers in the schools at a young age when the county had the DARE program in the past.
"Imagine the change in these kids if the officer stays with them for eight years," Burgess said. "We'll be giving the high schools a different product eventually."
Burgess pointed to inmate data from the Cumberland County Jail from Jan. 1 through Aug. 1, 2013. A total of 3,034 inmates were processed in that time, with 1,843 jailed on alcohol and drug-related charge. Those inmates with alcohol or drug-related charges had 915 children.
"This program will make changes," Burgess said. "I think we can make a big different in these numbers."
With current costs to house an inmate estimated about $72 per day, Burgess said reducing the number of individuals committing these crimes, and reducing the recidivism rate, would provide savings to the taxpayers.
"You can spend your money like this, or you can build more jails," Burgess said. "There's a lot, if we'd done the right thing earlier, they might not be in jail."
The program has funding this year through a one-time expenditure of the Cumberland County School System and by Burgess finding funds for one officer in his existing budget. The program will need additional funding next year to continue, and additional funding and manpower to expand.
"We made the decision and the school system decided that this was important," Burgess said. "Next year, it falls on the county commission."
The board of education has received many positive comments on the program, with 4th District Representative Josh Stone saying he asked the experts, his kids, about having an SRO in their school.
"They like having him there," Stone said. "They thought he was really cool."
David Bowman, 7th District representative and a deputy with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department, said, "I've talked to all four. They are loving their job right now. They're excited, happy. Every time they go into the schools, the kids are high-fiving them and hugging them. And the principals are happy."
Tim Claflin, safety coordinator for the schools, said he'd received nothing but positive feedback from parents and the community.
"It's a great program. They want to keep it going," he said.