Tri-county school resource officers serve vital role in keeping students, teachers safe
School Resource Officer James Camp joked Wednesday with Northwoods Middle School students as they passed by in the hallway.
By the numbers
Following is a breakdown of the suspensions and expulsions in Lowcountry school districts for the 2010-11 school year.
School district Suspensions Expulsions
Berkeley ** 151
Charleston 8,200 60
Dorchester 2 2,063 101
** Berkeley does not track suspensions at the district level.
Source: School districts
He kidded one student about the new design shaved into his hair, and he offered himself up as a punchline to another by pointing out his shorter stature.
Those kinds of interactions help Camp earn students’ trust, and his presence in congested areas helps keep the school safe.
“We’re in the schools because everyone wants to help children,” he said. “We’re not here to threaten or intimidate. We’re here to build relationships and be a resource. We want them to come to us.”
School resource officers are one of the key ways Lowcountry education officials create climates that enable teachers to teach and students to learn. That topic came up Wednesday night during a panel discussion, “Keeping Our Schools Safe,” hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Charleston area at the downtown YWCA. More than 20 people attended.
The moderator asked about the role of school resource officers, whether they receive special training and what the differences were between those on regular patrol vs. in schools.
Audience member Denise Cromwell asked the panel about school resource officers’ procedures in deciding whether students should be arrested or handcuffed.
Panelist John Droney, a Fort Johnson Middle School resource officer, said officers have significant leeway in making those kinds of calls, although some acts require an arrest, such as with an assault involving an injured victim.
Multiple law enforcement agencies work in Lowcountry schools, and each has different practices, he said. He said he prefers to turn children over to their parents rather than take them into juvenile custody, but the latter is the policy in other agencies.
Cromwell said afterward that she came to the discussion so she could be more informed, and she said she received good information.
She had specific questions related to a situation involving her elementary-school-age relative and a crime, and she said parents need to become more engaged so they can learn their rights.
“I’m concerned because whatever happens to children, we all are affected directly,” she said.
The panelists, who also included Berkeley County schools Director of Pupil Services Charlie Davis and Timberland High School Principal Kerry Daugherty, agreed that student safety is schools’ No. 1 priority.
“Before we can do anything else, we have to keep kids safe,” Davis said.
At Northwoods Middle, Principal Carol Beckmann-Bartlett said she wouldn’t want to function without Camp. She said she would have said the same about her school resource officer at Cario Middle in Mount Pleasant, where she previously worked as principal.
While Beckmann-Bartlett often is immersed in classrooms and instruction, she said Camp has his eyes on the building from a safety perspective. He is vigilant about closing doors that have been propped open, and he reminds staff about security rules, she said.
He also bridges the gap between the community aspect of police work and actual law enforcement, she said.
Camp said he wants students to have a better understanding of police officers so when they are older, they are waving at cops rather than running away from them.
“We want to change that,” he said.
He spends the vast majority of his time teaching, educating and counseling students. His Wednesday included helping a student who had been sexually assaulted tell her parents about the incident, and handling a fight between two special- education students.
He stopped a conversation with a journalist to talk to a student who wanted to report the name of an older student who had been intimidating him at recess. Camp promised to talk to the bully.
“You’re going to tell me the second he causes more problems,” he told the younger student.
His cellphone rang as he finished with him, and Camp had to pull another student out of class for an interview. That student’s younger sibling had reported abuse at home, and Camp was trying to find out more information.
Camp said he never knows how his day will go, and he lets the needs of students, teachers and administrators dictate his schedule.
“I have an open door,” he said.
Reach Diette Courrégé at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.