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BATTLE RISING: Battle High's student resource officer keeps his eye on school safety

Friday, November 15, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:21 a.m. CST, Friday, November 15, 2013
John Warner, Battle High's school resource officer, works at the school to ensure students are in a safe environment.

COLUMBIA — It can happen anywhere.

The lunchroom. A hallway. The gymnasium. A classroom. The parking lot.

It can be anything.

A fight. A drug bust. An intruder.

On Sept. 10, just after 10:30 a.m., it happens. Columbia Police Officer John Warner, the school resource officer at Battle High School, gets a call over the radio attached to his belt. He is needed immediately.

That call sets everything in motion. He straightens his 6-foot-4 frame and immediately begins walking. He picks up his pace but still exudes calm and cool. He weaves through students, hurries down the staircase and makes a calculated set of turns that puts him right outside a classroom in the G hallway on the main floor.

A dozen or so curious students part like the Red Sea to let Warner see what is going on: a fight between two students. Amid the confusion, Warner quickly secures one by the upper forearm and directs that student toward an administrator. The other one, the instigator, is pulled into the classroom for a private conversation with Warner and one of the assistant principals.

Minutes later, all three emerge, and the student is escorted to the office to provide information for the incident report and figure out a course of action.

All the while, Warner is not fazed, not frazzled, not ferocious. He’s simply present. He steps in when he is needed but also knows when to back away.

Battle's first SRO

After working in Columbia Public Schools for more than 20 years, Warner is accustomed to situations like this one. He has worked at numerous schools throughout district, providing protection and education to administrators, teachers and students.

Now, as the school resource officer or SRO assigned to Battle High, he is using his years of experience to handle the challenges of a new building with a new student body.

The number of disciplinary incidents that Warner handles should be going down, though. The number of incidents taking place in the district has shown a marked decrease over the past four years, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Nonetheless, the job requires plenty of vigilance and keen observation as Warner gets his bearings at Battle. It shouldn’t take long, seeing as his job is centered around basic surveillance and patrolling.

In his refined, discrete manner, he scans the surrounding area. His brown eyes, normally friendly and warm, can turn quickly into focused cameras, recording and processing everything they see.

Always watching

Over the noon hour one day in September, Warner watches the routine activities of any high school lunchroom: chatting students, laughter between two friends sharing a joke, general munching and crunching of cafeteria food. His head moves slowly and smoothly as his gaze sweeps across the room, back and forth, back and forth.

All of a sudden, the scanning stops. His eyes lock in on something that just doesn’t seem right, doesn’t seem normal. It's something he needs to assess.

Right now, it’s a group of students that seems a little too large and tightly packed together, as if hiding something. Warner stares for a moment, deciding whether the group merits his attention. He doesn’t want to come on too strong, but he doesn’t want to overlook anything, either.

"It doesn’t take long for little things to turn into big things," he says.

Today, it’s the former. The group disperses after Warner calmly, but firmly, asks them to. He resumes his post at the entrance to the lunchroom.

Throughout the 30-minute lunch period, students approach Warner and the teachers stationed nearby asking to leave. Some want to go to their lockers; others say they need to speak with a teacher. But every student is subjected to a flurry of questions, mostly from the teachers.

"Where are you going?"

"Do you have a pass?"

"Are you cleared?"

This happens with every student, no matter how innocent or sincere he or she seems. It’s a wariness that Warner believes will subside with time.

"As the staff gets to know the students, it will ease up," he says.

That’s the main challenge Warner sees being the SRO at a new high school. He, as well as the administrators and teachers, has never worked with this batch of students.

"We all know some of the kids," he says. "Now, we’re all just trying to learn all of them."

From his interactions, however, it appears that Warner knows more than just some of them. He can tell you their names, where they usually sit in the lunchroom and their usual behavior patterns.

One afternoon, after the final lunch period of the day, Officer Warner is wandering the hallways as the students hurry to class. The main hallway eventually clears, with the exception of a few stragglers. He notices two in particular who are already late for class take a right turn off the main hallway.

He makes his prediction: If he waits for a little while in the hallway, at least one, if not both, will come back the down the hall, obviously having tried to put off going to class.

He waits patiently against the wall, his eyes trained on the hallway down which the students disappeared.

Sure enough, one comes meandering back just minutes later.

"Hey, I called that, didn’t I?" he says, a playful twinkle in his eye and a knowing smile on his face as he watches the students walk into their respective classrooms.

Connecting with students

Joking aside, it’s this extreme attention to detail that sets Warner apart in his job, according Columbia Police Department Lieutenant Krista Shouse-Jones, the supervisor of all the SROs in the district.

"He does a good job of keeping in touch with the kids in his school," Shouse-Jones says.

Others have noticed this as well. Teachers and administrators who have worked with Warner in the past appreciate the presence he brought into the schools.

Helen Porter, the principal at Oakland Middle School, has known Warner for a decade. She worked with him when he was the one SRO assigned to six middle and junior high schools within the district.

"He was a positive influence in the hallways and was always around when we needed him," Porter says.

Marcus McGuinn, now a ninth-grade government teacher at Hickman High School, also worked with Warner during that time at West Junior High School. After Warner was assigned to more schools besides West, the staff had a hard time adjusting to sharing him.

"We missed having him in the building, mainly because he was fun to have around. He was such an integral part of our little community that we had," McGuinn says.

A natural in the classroom

At West, which is now a middle school, Warner also assisted in classrooms such as McGuinn’s, to teach students about government and their constitutional rights. It was a natural transition for him because he taught the Drug Abuse Resistance Education or DARE program to fifth-graders for 20 years before becoming an SRO in 2002.

"He’d be in a classroom in a heartbeat," McGuinn says.

Both were opportunities that Warner enjoyed because he felt he could proactively help students.

"I liked teaching DARE because you could get to the kid before he or she gets into trouble," Warner explains.

Even though Warner likes to call himself a cynic, he shows a fair amount of optimism and belief in the kids’ ability to change.

"We don’t want to tie a tail to them," he says. "We don’t want them to make a mistake that decides the rest of their lives."

With his love of working with students and the passion he has for being a police officer, Warner says it will be difficult for him to eventually leave his position. At age 56, he’s been eligible to retire for several years now.

"The problem with getting the job you’ve always wanted to do is what to do next," he says.

But for now, Warner will continue to patrol the halls with his warm smile, happy to help anyone who needs him.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

 


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