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Dubuque school officers attempt to be proactive

September 1, 2018

DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Each year, school resource officers working in the Dubuque Community School District file hundreds of reports and charges stemming from on-campus incidents.

They help school employees handle a variety of student-related issues, such as thefts, assaults, drugs and fighting. They join school officials when they need help with an investigation and when serious behavioral issues arise.

However, school-based officers still seek to maintain a focus on curbing inappropriate behaviors before they occur. And when problems do present themselves, the age of students plays a role in how they respond.

“Your goals are different,” said Dubuque police Lt. Joe Messerich, who oversees the district SROs. “You’re still to serve and protect, but oftentimes you approach it more from a social worker’s point of view than from the point of view of a street cop that needs to make an arrest because someone broke the law.”

The Telegraph Herald reports that during the 2017-2018 school year, SROs serving the Dubuque Community School District filed 184 charges, largely stemming from student-related incidents, according to police data.

They also filed 225 police reports stemming from 445 incidents that year for issues such as assaults on staffers, harassment, theft, drugs and fighting. There were about 11,000 students in the district last school year.

The data cover every Dubuque district campus except for Sageville Elementary School, which is covered by the Dubuque County Sheriff’s Department. Deputy Sara Kamm, an SRO for the sheriff’s department, said five reports and no charges related to incidents in Sageville were filed last school year.

Mark Burns, the Dubuque district’s director of secondary education, said administrators decide when to involve SROs in discipline-related incidents that arise at school. However, SROs typically assist with incidents involving violence, drugs, alcohol or weapons, he said.

“If there’s something that has happened, it’s a case-by-case thing,” Burns said. “But generally speaking, if we’re getting them involved, there’s a certain potential that a student is going to be charged.”

Charges are much more infrequent at the elementary level. Those incidents accounted for just two SRO-filed charges last school year.

Dubuque police Cpl. Danielle Beck, the SRO for the Dubuque district’s elementary schools, said that when she is called to assist in a student discipline issue, she tries to focus on helping students understand the consequences of their actions so they can make better choices.

“Criminal charges are not necessarily the best option, and they’re not necessarily an available option for certain ages of children,” she said.

Messerich noted that while almost all charges filed by SROs were student-related, police reports and incidents could include non-school-related issues that make their way into district buildings. That can include reports of child abuse.

While the number of incidents SROs handle has fluctuated in recent years, some kinds of issues have been more common than others.

The most commonly reported incidents last school year were drug-related. From the 2012-2013 school year to the 2017-2018 school year, the number of drug-related incidents reported to SROs more than doubled, with 64 such incidents reported in the most recent school year.

Messerich said he was not surprised by the increase (in drug incidents), noting that new ways of using marijuana and the availability of prescription drugs give young people easier access to illicit substances. Marijuana causes the greatest number of drug-related incidents at schools, he said.

Hempstead High School Assistant Principal/Registrar Eddie Santiago, however, said he felt the increase was more reflective of measures that school officials have taken to keep buildings safe. That includes having police dogs on campus.

“I think part of it that you may end up seeing with the numbers is how proactive and closely we’re working with the SROs,” Santiago said.

The second-most common incidents reported to SROs last school year were related to fighting, though the number of fight reports varied from year to year.

Santiago said most fights that occur at school tend to be minor.

“A good amount of the time, we are able to end up solving that conflict with the students, and it’s more rare that we run into something that would be more of a serious fight,” he said.

In addition to performing law enforcement duties, Dubuque’s SROs spend a significant amount of their time in classrooms talking to students and performing outreach in an effort to reduce behavior issues, Messerich said.

He also noted that when it comes to addressing problems, SROs have to keep an open mind and be willing to try new things. Their approaches are different than those of a typical patrol officer because they are dealing with younger people, he said.

Indeed, most of Beck’s time in the schools is spent giving students talks on topics such as safety, bullying and the importance following the rules. She also spends time in the schools getting to know students.

“I don’t want that to be the impression that they have of police, that we only come around when someone is in trouble,” she said.

Burns, who last school year was principal of George Washington Middle School, said he believes SROs take on a preventative role.

“It’s about teaching kids ahead of time what the expectations are and the behaviors are, more so than it is about reacting to a misbehavior,” he said.


Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com

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