Protecting Knox

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 10, 2013

It’s likely the three most often repeated words in a middle school that have to deal with conflict involve students yelling “fight, fight, fight.”

When a fight does erupt in most middle schools, administrators are there to quell the situation. However, when a fight occurs at Knox Middle School, Salisbury Police Officer Shanita Millsaps restores order. Millsaps is a school resource officer at Knox Middle and is the only middle school resource officer in Rowan County.

Resource Officers were removed from the middle schools during the 2009-2010 school year when the state cut funding to the school system. School resource officers remain at each of the seven high schools.

Resource officers were paid jointly by the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office and the Rowan-Salisbury School System. The school system and law enforcement continue to advocate for the reinstatement of school resource officers.

Millsaps has been in law enforcement for nearly 18 years, 10 of them as a school resource officer. Before working as a resource officer at Knox, Millsaps was a resource officer at Salisbury High and Henderson Independent.

Millsaps readily admits that a lot of what happens in the school has little to do with enforcing policies and the laws. She’s often gone beyond the role of a law enforcement officer and taken on the roles of counselor, confidante and friend to students. Students seek her advice about issues at home, bullying and have asked how they should handle a particular situation at school.

Her day sometimes doesn’t end at the 3:30 bell. In fact, Millsaps has wrapped up work and spoken with students and parents at their homes.

The officer believes the biggest asset she provides is her presence on campus. She’s able to settle disputes before they occur between students.

“I do a lot of talking with them together,” she said.

Millsaps said as a mother, she’s “able to understand what students are facing” and make them aware of “the consequences of their actions.”

Many of the students live in her neighborhood and see Millsaps at sporting events and while she’s working off-duty at various events.

“I enjoy being here. I love my job and it makes a difference when you love your job,” she said.

Many students, administrators and parents see a resource officer at Knox as an asset and hope that all middle schools will, in the near future, have school resource officers.

“She’s a good person to talk to. She tries to help us try to solve our problems. She listens and gives advice. She’s like a friend,” said Antaneia Glover.

Glover, 14, attended the school when it had no school resource officer and says the previous school year was more chaotic.

Antaneia said she values that Millsaps supports the students. Antaneia said the officer sees beyond the student who everyone else labels a “bad person” and sees “they aren’t all bad.”

“She does make us feel secure,” said Jessie Johnson.

The 13-year-old said although the officer is kind to students, she still enforces the rules.

“She’ll talk to you about it and tell you about the consequences,” Jessie said.

Seventh grader Roger Chimney credits the officer with helping him stay out of trouble.

“People watch what they do now. They don’t do some of the stuff they would’ve done last year because of the school resource officer,” Roger said.

Assistant Principal Adam DeLand said the benefits of having a school resource officer on school campuses go beyond a reduction in school violence. He said Knox administrators don’t perceive Millsaps as someone who stands guard at the school entrance.

“She spends time building and strengthening relationships with students,” staff and parents, DeLand said, “all while serving in a realm to deter and solve problems in a proactive manner.”

When Principal Terrence Snider reflects on the number of disciplinary referrals he had at the school last year, he’s grateful for the officer’s presence.

Often, children see law enforcement as something negative, but having a school resource officer allows them to see law enforcement officers in a different way, he said.

“She’s from the same community, and they see her as a safe haven,” Snider said.

The students trust Millsaps, and they also know she’s not going to tolerate their shenanigans.

“Officer Millsaps exemplifies love, care and concern for every student and staff member at Knox Middle School. She understands that our top priority at Knox Middle is safety for all,” Snider said.

At the beginning of the year, Snider said, he met with each grade level to review campus expectations. Millsaps spoke with the students about the legal aspects of decisions that involve gangs, drugs and violence.

Millsaps also participates in campus activities and athletic events.

“She has a heart for working with the staff and students at Knox Middle School and has become an invaluable part of our family,” Snider said.

Parents Kathryn Rusher and Mary Heather Steinman agreed that students need an authoritative figure outside of the classroom with whom they can identify. Safety is likely at the top of the list for parents, including themselves, when it comes to their children in school, the women said.

Sheriff Kevin Auten has been a driving force behind getting school resource officers into Rowan County middle schools. He’s asked the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to fund school resource officers in the six middle schools that don’t have them.

“I’ve always felt middle schools are a good place to influence youth. The younger they are, the better the chance we have to have positive influence,” Auten said.

Auten has looked at grant opportunities, but none have quite fit. In the past, the sheriff’s office has paid two months salary and the school system 10 months.

“The benefit it provides is a sense of security and should something happen, there’s an officer there,” he said.

Auten said he saw first hand the relationships an officer could build with students when his son attended West Rowan Middle school. Auten would see the officer high-five students. He said it’s also about putting someone in the schools who can connect with the students.

“They didn’t see him as an officer, but a friend,” he said.

Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins said his department saw the benefit of keeping an officer in the schools and so he managed to retain the position at Knox Middle through police department funding.

Last year Collins said he had to pull the school resource officer at Knox due to budget constraints. His department had to cut seven positions and a school resource officer was the last to be cut.

“I was very unhappy with having to do that,” Collins said of the elimination.

He said this current school year, he didn’t have the heart to keep an officer out of the school.

“It’s too vital,” he said of the position.

Incidents increased 18 percent from the 2010-2011 school year to the 2011-2012 school year when Knox went from having an officer to being without one, Collins said.

Once an officer was reinstated, incidents decreased 30 percent from 2011-2012 to this current school year.

“I feel it’s important not only as a deterrent, but the kids desperately need to see an officer in a positive light,” Collins said.

Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom formed a System Safety Committee, made up of local law enforcement, principals and other school personnel, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December. The members of the task force had their first meeting in January and have since held subsequent meetings regarding ways to improve school safety. One of the issues the task force has addressed is supplying every elementary and middle school with resource officers.

Grissom said having a school resource officer at every school in the district was addressed by the committee in length.

“We know this is a need and we will continue to seek the necessary resources to make this happen. Our law enforcement is vital part of this committee and we value the excellent relationships that we have formed over the years to address the needs of our entire school system family,” she said.

Grissom said although there is currently not a resource officer at every school, “our law enforcement stands ready to respond quickly whenever we have contacted them when needed.”

The school system currently receives state funds to provide resource officers only at high schools.

According to early estimates, the cost to the school system to provide resource officers in the middle schools including a one-time cost of vehicles would be about $555,000. The half-million dollar price tag would cover six officers.

The school system has in its 2013-2014 school budget a proposal that would include half the cost of resource officers in the middle schools, but that cost is dependent upon whether the county will fund the other half. The school system budget has not been finalized.

The county budget has also not been finalized, but Auten’s request is not funded in the proposed budget county commissioners are considering. They’ll continue deliberating it at a 3 p.m. work session today at the county government center, 130 W. Innes St.

Even if he doesn’t get money for resource officers, Auten is not abandoning his effort to get officers into the middle schools, just refocusing. For example, many of the middle schools have the Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program. His office has five officers certified to implement and instruct that program.

“We want to use that time in a good way,” he said.

Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253. Twitter: Facebook: