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School officers keep kids safe

County commissioners have a lot of decisions to make at budget time. One that does not seem to have troubled most Rowan commissioners this year is the request for uniformed officers at the county’s middle schools — school resource officers.
The answer was “no” almost before anyone asked the question. A hold-the-line county budget has no money to spare for beefing up school security. Maybe next year.
The massacre of elementary school children in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012 spurred school security efforts across the country into action — locking all outside doors, installing intercom systems and, in North Carolina, prompting legislation that would have added $20 million for more school resource officers. Unfortunately, at last check that bill had been amended to call for unpaid volunteers to serve in that role.

The call for school resource officers — paid ones, that is — predates the Newtown tragedy by several years. These officers are less about security against the dangers from outside the school than the dangers within. Officers placed in schools are effective at protecting students from each other and at safeguarding teachers. As for outside threats, as Sheriff Kevin Auten has said, “should something happen, there’s an officer there.”
The officer can also help young people see uniformed officers in a largely positive context. “I’ve always felt middle schools are a good place to influence youth,” Auten says. “The younger they are, the better the chance we have to have positive influence.”
Some people worry that having an officer on campus can have a negative effect, with school misbehavior being unnecessarily labeled as crime. One study cited by the Journal of Criminal Justice did find that schools with SROs had more arrests for disorderly conduct than those without them. The same study, however, also found that having an officer on campus decreased the arrest rate for assault and weapons charges. Can you spell d-e-t-e-r-r-e-n-t?

But there’s the problem of m-o-n-e-y. All Rowan middle schools had resource officers for a few years, until state budget cuts came along. (Salisbury Police now provide an officer for Knox Middle.) The economy is beginning to get better, but lawmakers are focussed on cutting personal and corporate income taxes. Even though the county manager says a 3-cent tax increase may be necessary next year — an election year, no less — commissioners are determined not to raise taxes this year.
Rowan Commissioner Mike Caskey, a law enforcement officer himself, said he would like to see the county at least fund part-time school resource officers at some schools. Give him credit for speaking up. Maybe by the time the board of commissioners votes on the budget Monday, that idea will have gained steam. But don’t count on it.

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