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Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

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July 2017 | Volume 10 | Issue 7

Balancing the needs of community members while being responsible for safety and crime prevention is essential for law enforcement, but particularly challenging for officers who work in schools across the United States. We asked Officer Kelly DeJonge of the Glendale (Wisconsin) Police Department to discuss the challenges and rewards of working as a school resource officer.  

Officer Kelly DeJonge has been a school resource officer (SRO) for nine years at Nicolet High School, an assignment she describes as being different every day, but always rewarding and fulfilling. “Like all law enforcement officers, I came into the field to help people—and in my role as SRO, I feel that I am really doing that every day.”  

DeJonge loves her job, though she admits it can be exhausting and observes that, with ever-increasing pressures and temptations confronting today’s kids at increasingly younger years, the guidance and intervention that an SRO provides students, parents, and family is critical. 

Please describe a typical Day as an SRO:
There is no typical day, but before school starts in the morning, I report to my precinct for roll call to learn about issues that involve any of the kids at the school—anything that would have been reported to the police. When I get to Nicolet [HS], I check in with the principal and administrative staff and then go to my office to check and respond to emails, which I do regularly in the morning and during lunch hour. After that, if I am not teaching, I am engaging with students in the halls, especially during class change. It is very important to be visible, to make myself accessible to the kids and to engage with them.
After the school days ends, I continue to respond to issues with students and meet with parents, community members, other officers, and government services such as Child Protective Services (CPS) to reduce crime and work to keep students safe in the school.

How is it different from street patrol?
For one thing, I have to prioritize issues more than a street officer, whose work stops at the end of his or her shift. My desk is covered with folders containing cases that I must investigate—everything from child abuse to drugs to cyberbullying. Another difference is that I use more discretion when deciding how to respond to an issue. Often the best response is simply talking to a kid who is acting out and getting to the cause of the problem. An SRO has to be both flexible and creative, to think outside the box sometimes—and able to work with a wide variety of issues and people, including children who are mentally or physically disabled.

Also, my job involves a lot of mentoring and guidance, so I frequently work with the school counselors or social workers. I work with the school administrators, teachers, and parents as well. I also teach lessons at the high school that relate law enforcement and safety topics with standard classes. But perhaps the biggest difference is how I interact with my community—the students—who often ask me questions or for advice. I have relationships with many of them, and even visit their homes from time to time in a mentor capacity. Most importantly, I work to prevent problems rather than to react to them. It is by far the easiest way to promote safety in the school, especially if the underlying cause of the problem is identified and resolved. 

As part of my role as an emergency manager, I routinely meet with the school administrators in all of the local school districts to discuss lockdown procedures and policies within the school building, providing ideas to enhance school safety.

Do you wear your uniform?
I wear a standard uniform with all my equipment, including my duty belt and service weapon, but SROs in some other agencies wear a soft uniform, which also includes a duty belt. 

How do you interact with the kids and their parents?
As an SRO, I am their mentor, teacher, or a person to come to for help and guidance. Some of them ask to be my friend on Facebook or other personal interactions, which I will not do because I feel it’s important to maintain my role as an authority figure and representative of law enforcement. But I do want to engage with the kids and keep the lines of communication open, so I set up a Nicolet SRO Facebook page, a group page that I use for my position as SRO. I try to post anything relevant to my position or my police department, positive stories, and things parents should watch for. I have had the page for at least eight years now and have many photos posted as well. 

I also talk with parents and family members about serious problems, as well as providing information and advice on my Facebook page. But I find that many parents just are not aware of what kids are doing today—they don’t realize how early problems such as sexual assault and bullying start. I also hold meetings at the school for parents and community members.

What do you teach? 
I teach a wide variety of things. Teachers may ask me to teach their kids about texting and driving. In health class, I have taught modules on sexual assault and the age of consent, as well as on drugs and alcohol. In science, I talk about speed and its relation to dangerous driving; I have even brought in my radar unit and let the kids try it out to see how we identify speeders. In English class, I addressed a group of German exchange students who were curious about my role in the school and wanted to talk about the differences between policing here and in Germany with their American classmates.

And I teach Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) classes to middle school students and include high school students in the D.A.R.E program as a another opportunity to mentor and engage with the kids.

What are some of the things you get involved in on a daily basis?
Again, no day is like another—things change constantly. I may be involved in a parking issue in the parking lot, or chasing down a kid who has been reported to have brought a weapon to school. Sometimes, I have to investigate criminal cases involving the kids—it could be child abuse, rising from a CPS report or investigation through my department. We have had weapons incidents, but very few. Most often, my interaction is simply answering questions from the students and parents, who come in or call me on my office phone. 

The biggest change I have seen since I started is in the harmful use of social media, which has not only increased, but is now being used by and for children as young as fifth and sixth graders. Like the older kids, they are also engaging in sexting and cyberbullying, putting up fake sites on Snapchat, Instagram, and other media in which they harass or say nasty things about other people. Sexual assault is a growing problem. 

What are your biggest or most frequent challenges?
Many students suffer from mental illness, including depression and suicide. Also, the harmful use and negative effects of social media—cyberbullying and sexting.  And drugs—heroin, opioids, and others.

How do you learn about problems in the school?
Sometimes issues are brought to my attention by school administrators, the social worker, or teachers. Parents sometimes call me as well, and students will address me directly, calling my attention to problems. On occasion, I hear from outside welfare services such as the CPS. I then pass on the information to the school administrators.

How do you decide where your job starts and the school’s begins?
It’s not always easy, but it’s very important that school administrators know what their role is and what an SRO’s is and where the line must be drawn. My duty as an SRO is a legal one, relating to public safety, crime and the law. But sometimes, teachers or administrators expect an SRO to step in where we do not, especially in disciplinary actions, and are disappointed that we cannot perform certain functions for them. If a child is tardy for instance, responding to that is the school’s responsibility, not the SRO’s.

What would you change about your job?
From my experience and discussions with other SROs, I know it’s important for school districts and administrators to understand the roles we play. In some districts, the administration only reaches out when they have a problem and the issue may be a matter for the school, not a law enforcement issue. We SROs should work together more. Schools should be involved in the selection process for the SRO who will work in their school, and all SROs, as well as school personnel, should be trained on SRO job duties and roles of the SRO. Officers need to understand also that they are going to work very hard— the work doesn’t end at the end of the day.  

Have you had to arrest any kids?
In some cases, an arrest is required—when it’s a weapons, drugs, or alcohol charge. The school is my city and the hallways my streets, and I must keep them safe for all the students, even if it means issuing a citation in some circumstances. However, because I am dealing with adolescents in a school environment, I can be more flexible—I can use a lot more discretion than an officer on the street.  In some cases, a good talk is the best answer. For example, if an adult is caught shoplifting in a store, I must make an arrest—if a kid has stolen food from the cafeteria, I will talk to him or her privately to figure out the underlying issue.

Can you give an example of how your intervention has produced results?
One example is a girl who had a lot of attitude; she fairly bristled with anger and often picked fights. I spoke with her and realized that she had serious problems at home. She was suspended, and I went to visit her at home, the two of us sitting on the steps outside her apartment building, and talking on several occasions. After some struggles, she became a good student and graduated from high school. I still see her in the community she’s doing well and she and her mother both call me their favorite police officer.

Officer Kelly DeJonge
Glendale Police Department

Faye Elkins
Staff Writer

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