COLUMBIA —When a fight that occurred at Hickman High School Oct. 15 was videotaped and posted to YouTube, many residents learned for the first time that police officers are placed in Columbia schools. The navy-clad officers aren't security guards — they are active members of the Columbia Police Department stationed in middle, junior and high schools.
During the spring semester, Lange Middle Resource Officer Brian Grove, along with the two other school resource officers at Smithton and Gentry middle schools, were pulled from their school posts to help re-enforce manpower on the streets.
School resource officers in Columbia Public Schools are helping students see beyond the handcuffs and blue lights they associate with police officers. The officers serve as liaisons between the Police Department and the school in which they serve, but the responsibility doesn't stop there. Resource officers also educate and advise in their positions.
Officer John Warner, who is in his seventh year as a resource officer at West Junior High School, said he enjoys helping students see another side to police officers.
“Connecting in a positive way has been my favorite part of the job,” Warner said.
For Warner, the biggest difference between working at the schools and working on the streets is dealing with the counselors, parents and students on a daily basis.
An average day for a school resource officer means patrolling the school grounds and hallways and helping with problems or concerns that arise in and around the school, for example when one student bullies another. Parents will also bring concerns about their children's interactions with others to a resource officer.
Warner said he has found most problems arise from things that occur in neighborhoods, which are later brought into school. He said he likes to keep in touch with the road officers to see what is going on in the surrounding neighborhoods.
To be eligible for the position, an officer must have at least three years of experience with the Columbia police, undergo a personnel review, write a letter to the officer's supervisor and have an oral interview with school and police administrators including Sgt. Eric White of the Columbia Police Department's community youth services.
After going through a training program, the officer is then put in charge of programs such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program, the Columbia Police Department Youth Academy and the Columbia Police Department Cadet Corps, in which students work directly with the police officers.
Grove said the training helps get the officers in a school mindset. In training, the officers attend classes that cover issues such as bullying, drugs, alcohol, home safety, personal safety, traffic safety and law.
"(It helps them) to become more comfortable in the classroom with children," Grove said.
Grove said officers can take additional training sessions as well as attend conferences conducted by the Missouri School Resource Officers Association.
For Warner, the chance to leave an impression on the students is a benefit of the job.
"I get to see the fifth graders that I taught (in the DARE program) come to school as eighth- and ninth-graders," Warner said. "It's rewarding that I know them and they know me."
The school resource officer program has been implemented in more than 40 states since 1951 and began in Columbia in 2000.
Columbia Public Schools pays for roughly 60 percent of the officers' salaries at Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools, and the city handles the remaining portion, as well as the total salary for officers at the middle and junior high schools, according to White.
Except for Douglass High School, one school resource officer can be found at each Columbia middle, junior and high school, totaling eight officers. Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools and Lange Middle School rotate new officers every three years and once the officers depart from
their position at the school, they return to regular patrol. The other
five officers have permanent positions.
It's important that the officers make sure students feel protected, Warner said, and that students learn there are consequences for their actions. He enjoys the teaching part of the job, whether it's going over the law in a government class or the impact of alcohol in a health class.
“You actually feel like you’re making a change in someone’s life,” Warner said.