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School resource officers ready for new year

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Joining the nearly 23,000 students walking the hallways of Bossier Parish schools for the first day of school Thursday will be 23 Bossier Sheriff’s Office deputies serving as School Resource Officers to keep the schools safe.

While SROs had already been assigned to each middle and high school, the program is expanding starting in the 2014-2015 school year with the addition of an SRO assigned to each of the elementary schools.

“The safety of children at our schools is vital, and I am pleased of the partnership with Superintendent Machen and the Bossier Parish School Board and the support of our residents in expanding the SRO program into our elementary schools,” said Bossier Sheriff Julian Whittington, whose two children grew up in Bossier Parish schools.  “The world we live in today necessitates having a POST-certified law enforcement officer to be present at the schools to protect our students all the way from their kindergarten years through high school graduation.  We couldn’t ask for a better group of SROs serving in our Bossier schools.”

“We are in a very challenging world,” said Capt. Danny Dison, director of security for Bossier Parish Schools and 42-year law enforcement veteran.  “We have things happen almost daily that we hear about, and when the students get into that middle and high school level, they are challenged.  They’re no different than kids anywhere else.”

For the elementary schools, the killing of 26 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, changed everything.

“It’s very, very important to me that these schools are maintained as far as security,” said Dison, who will have four grandchildren attending Bossier schools this fall.  “You can’t put a price tag on what it means to have a marked Sheriff’s unit parked outside one of those schools and that uniformed deputy walking through the hallways of that individual school each and every day.”

“It gives me comfort knowing that I have law enforcement right here to help with all the security issues,” said Julie Dupree, principal of Apollo Elementary School.  “One of my biggest concerns daily is the safety of my children and to ensure parents that their children are safe here, and to let the children know that they are safe here.  With all the things that have happened with incidents at schools that have endangered children, I feel so responsible that the doors are locked and that we’re keeping strangers off the campus.”

“We are the first line of defense for the school,” said Dep. Lane Tuggle, newly-assigned SRO for Benton High School.  Tuggle, who has nearly 28 years of law enforcement experience as a former state trooper with Louisiana State Police and officer with Bossier City Police Department, has two children of his own attending Bossier schools.   He says he loves working with kids and knows how important his role is.

“The school staff and school leadership come to us for expertise in law enforcement,” Tuggle says, “so we keep the staff up to date with crisis intervention and crisis response to the school.  A crisis on the campus may range from an active shooter to a hazard material spill outside of the school.”

While SROs are assigned to the schools to maintain safety and security, they do so much more.  It’s often about relationship-building with the leadership, staff and students.   Sincerity is also important, says Dep. John Jeter, SRO for Bossier High School for four years.

“A lot of the students don’t have structure at home, and then they come to school and see that we have structure, that we do care and we do love them,” said Jeter, a law enforcement veteran of 35 years.  “I had to earn their trust,” he said, which he did by having his office always open and having water, candy, cookies and crackers for the students.

Jeter enforces the law, but he’s also a counselor, father, brother, coach and mentor.    He knows the stigma that being law enforcement may bring inside high school walls, but he’s quick to note, “I’m not the bad guy, I’m there to help, and they know they can trust me.”  He’s even had girls and boys confide in him very personal things that they might not tell anyone else, commented Jeter, who has 15 years of experience working with juveniles in physical and sexual abuse cases while previously with the Bossier City Police Department.

In his role as SRO, Jeter has had to arrest students, something he takes very seriously.  But it still goes back to relationship-building.

“Most of the time, they come back and apologize,” Jeter said.  “It brings tears to my eyes when they come back and say they’re sorry for the way they acted.”

His advice to new SROs – “Be patient, show them that you do love them, and be kind to them.  Don’t just be the lawman all the time.”

Sgt. Adam Johnson, supervisor of the Bossier SRO unit and former SRO for Airline High School, recalls a recent incident involving a former student.

“My wife and I went to eat dinner with some friends of ours, and a young lady was a waitress there,” said Johnson, a 16-year veteran of law enforcement.   Johnson and the former student recognized each other.  She came up to Johnson, gave him a big hug and told him what a difference he made in her life.

“This young lady had an extremely hard past, and she had made some wrong decisions that we had to intervene with,” said Johnson, who also has two children in Bossier Parish schools.  “She told me ‘I graduated two years ago, and if it weren’t for you, I would be in jail, or I would be pregnant or have all these diseases.’”  She attributes the guidance she received from Johnson about decision-making two years earlier for the reason she is where she is now…in her third year of college with ambition to pursue a career in the field of law enforcement.

“I hugged her and gave a good tip!” Johnson noted.

The role of the SRO has changed over the years, said Dison, but some things have remained the same.  Dison started serving as an SRO at Airline High School 23 years ago and says the number one drug among students then was alcohol.   The number one drug with kids today…it’s still alcohol.  Students today are also dealing with issues of drugs, suicide and violence.  But the biggest challenge today among students is one that is facing our society as a whole – social media.

“Technology is a valuable tool,” Dison said, “but we see the negative sides of it.”

Earlier this year, Sheriff Whittington spearheaded a campaign along with Bossier Parish Schools superintendent D.C. Machen, area law enforcement agencies and judges to educate residents, parents and students about the dangers of sexting.  Sexting is when young people send nude or partially nude photographs of themselves to others via texting or social media.  While the action is against the law, it can also have devastating consequences to students who are faced with humiliation and tremendous embarrassment.

Jason Rowland, principal of Airline High School, hosted student assemblies for his more than 1,700 students about the issue of sexting.  Rowland emphasized that having an SRO present in the school helps curb much of that activity…and a whole lot more.

“These kids see the SRO as a man in uniform, a person of respect, a person of authority,” Rowland, who will have 556 freshmen starting this week, the largest freshman class ever for Bossier Parish schools.  “The SRO provides a presence that deters a lot of nonsense that really doesn’t have a place in school.  I really think the visibility and presence of an SRO really reveals an emphasis.  Just like we do when we are driving down the road and we see a police car, we want to straighten up.”

Dison also noted that communities in Bossier Parish value the importance of their schools.  “For example,” he said, “Haughton High School is a rallying cry for the community in Haughton.”  It’s community spirit like this that makes Bossier Parish a great place to live, he said.  “People come here because of our schools and the law enforcement and fire services.”

Dison said that the partnership in Bossier Parish amongst the schools and area first responders is phenomenal.  The schools train with each of the police departments in Plain Dealing, Haughton, Benton and Bossier City, along with the local fire departments.

Having 23 SROs at each school as students and faculty head back to school Thursday will provide safety and security for students, or “our treasures, our jewels,” as principal Julie Dupree calls her students.

“If we don’t take care of them, then we’re not doing the right thing,” Dupree said.  “We must take care of our children.  We must protect our children.”