Budget cuts add to school resource officer's responsibilities

Thursday, August 18, 2011 | 11:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:03 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 18, 2011
School resource officer John Warner watches over a hallway at West Junior High School on Thursday. Because of budget cuts, Warner is now the only school resource officer for three Columbia Public junior highs and three middle schools.


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Beginning Thursday, John Warner is going to supervise 6,000 kids.

During the past school year, Warner was one of three Columbia police officers assigned to patrol Columbia's three junior highs and three middle schools. Budget cuts, however, have left Warner, who was only in charge of West Junior High School just two years back, as the lone full-time school resource officer for those schools.

“I anticipate it’s going to be a lot of work," Warner said, "because two years ago there were six of us, last year there were three, and this year it’s just me."

The Board of Education cut more than $1.8 million from the coming year's budget, and $52,000 of that came from cutting two resource officers for junior highs and middle schools.

Warner described his job as "like a police officer who handles a beat: mine is the six schools. My goal is that within the week, I will spend a certain amount of time at every school.  I'll probably spend more full days at the junior high schools, because they have more physical altercations."

Most of the 6,000 kids he supervises are well-behaved, Warner said, but among the few who aren’t, stealing, assaults and fighting are top offenses.

“Some small issues that I could get in the middle of before they got big are going to be a more difficult process now," he said. "When you stuff a thousand kids together for the vast majority of the day, stuff is gonna happen. We've had a couple of brawls at the junior highs: pretty good-sized groups of people willing to fight each other and unwilling to listen to adults."

Warner said a few students cause a disproportionate number of problems, and those students need repeated attention.

"In my 10 years as a school resource officer, it's only been a few times I've ever really had to tackle somebody hard. We do teach an in-service class to personnel about how to be aware of what situations are occurring when they occur. People need to be aware of other people's physiological actions when they start to act up."

In addition to having a presence in schools, resource officers connect with guidance counselors about troublesome behavior and act as trusted sources for students being abused at home.

You won't find Warner's schedule posted on a school bulletin board.

"I don't want to make a set schedule," he said, "because then students could plan negative actions when they know I won't be there."

Both Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools will each have their own resource officer this year, the same as last year.

Mike Jones, an art teacher at Hickman High School, said the resource officers set a positive example for the Columbia Police Department. He said Kevin Keith, the resource officer assigned to Hickman, has helped build relationships with people in the community.

“I think it’s good for the police to be more visible," Jones said. "It probably adds more of a positive note to what could be seen more as an enforcement role.”

For Warner, having more ground to cover will make it more difficult to develop some of those relationships. “When I had just one of these schools, I had an easier time connecting with the kids,” Warner said. “It’s discouraging for teachers too when there’s a lower staff-to-student ratio.”

Michele Baumstark, spokeswoman for Columbia Public Schools, said the district's budget has suffered from a loss of state revenues that have forced the elimination of 270 positions in the past three years.

“We want to keep cuts as far away from the classrooms as long as possible,” she said.

One may wonder who is going to tackle the problems now. "Good question," Warner said. "I don't know. We certainly don't expect school staff to do it unless it's an extremely dangerous situation."

If uncontrollable problems arise when there is no student resource officer present, staff can call 911, Warner said, as they did before police were put in schools.

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Mike Bellman August 18, 2011 | 8:29 p.m.

I don't know many law enforcement professionals. John Warner is one I am proud to say I have made an acquaintance.

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