03/23/2005

Officers in schools might be the difference

School and police officials say posting officers on campuses might help prevent school massacres, officials say.
 
ADAM LYNN AND DEBBY ABE, The News Tribune (Tacome, WA)
 
South Sound school and law enforcement officials believe stationing armed officers in local high schools would help prevent massacres like the one Monday at a Minnesota Indian reservation.

For years, local police agencies either have assigned officers to high schools or allowed off-duty cops to work - in uniform and carrying their service weapons - on campus during the school day.

Sometimes called school resource officers, the police officers and sheriff's deputies patrol the halls, investigate complaints and work with school administrators to create security plans or discuss potential problems at school.

Even when off duty, they have full arrest powers and act as first responders to crimes on campus, said Tacoma police spokesman Mark Fulghum.

Public high schools in Tacoma, Federal Way and many in Pierce County have law enforcement officers on campus during the school day. Some districts also hire off-duty police officers to provide security at sporting events and dances.

"They're a visible presence at the schools, and students can approach them and talk to them about things," Fulghum said. "If they hear rumors, they can investigate them before something gets started. We can start looking into it right away."

Federal Way School District spokeswoman Diane Turner said city police officers assigned to the district's five high schools provide "a great benefit."

Jesse Hotz is a Pierce County sheriff's deputy assigned to work as a school resource officer in the Bethel School District. Hotz said he serves as a mentor and role model for students in addition to assisting with incidents on school premises.

"One of the great benefits of being a school resource officer is you get to know these kids," he said. "When you run into them in the community you know them, and they know you."

That allows him to spot troubled students, assess the threat and try to help them, he said.

While school resource officers have been around for some time, local law enforcement agencies recently changed the way they plan to react in case of a school shooting.

The first patrol officers or deputies on the scene will now hunt down and take out the shooter, instead of surrounding the school and waiting for SWAT teams to arrive. The change was made after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, where two teenage boys continued killing students and teachers while patrol officers set up outside the school.

Earlier this month, 200 Bethel School District students and teachers joined local authorities to stage a mock shooting at Bethel High School. The drill allowed law enforcement officers to put their new policies into practice and gave school officials the opportunity to test their communications and evacuation plans.

"We do have a protocol and system in place in the event this should happen," said Principal Wanda Riley. "The bottom line is to save as many lives as possible."

Still, schools and law enforcement agencies can't guard against every possibility, Fulghum said.

"You're not going to stop everything," he said. "I don't think there's one answer for stopping everything."

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