School cops build rapport with trust, not handcuffs

Bond with students has deepened after 10-plus years in Thurston County schools

ckrotzer@theolympian.comMay 19, 2013 

  • SROs’ SALARIES A SHARED RESPONSIBILITY

    School resource officers in Thurston County have a base pay between $70,000 and $80,000 per year, depending on the district.

    The Olympia School District pays half the salary of each SRO during the school year, amounting to about 38 percent of the yearly pay for each SRO annually, said Olympia Police Department spokesperson Laura Wohl.

    Similarly, the North Thurston School District is in contract with the Lacey Police Department to pay for its three resource officers by providing $130,000 each year.

    The City of Tumwater pays for its only SRO through levy lid lift funding.

    The SROs work at their assigned campus during the school year, but are back out on patrol during the summer.

All 16-year-old Alfonso Vela had to do was take nine heel-to-toe steps down a white line, turn to the left, and return to his starting point.

Easier said than done while wearing goggles that imitate what it’s like to have a blood alcohol content of 0.2 percent, more than twice the legal limit.

Vela’s arms flailed for balance, despite the officer’s direction to keep them at his sides. The goggles distorted Vela’s vision, magnifying the ground and making the once-centered white line appear to the far right.

“It was ridiculously hard,” Vela said upon returning from his wobbly walk. “It feels like you would fall over every time I took a step.

“I didn’t like it.”

Leaving a student with that impression was the point of the day’s activity at River Ridge High School in Lacey, a program put on by school resource officer Ken Westphal.

School resource officers are a common sight in most of Thurston County’s schools. On the surface, each is a commissioned officer, armed with the standard gun, Tazer and handcuffs, with responsibilities to cut down on crime, ensure student safety and respond in emergency situations.

In reality, that’s only a fraction of what the officers consider the bread and butter of their job: creating a trusting relationship with the students, as well as being a figure of authority that mentors when necessary.

“It’s less about arresting people than it is about helping,” Westphal said. “You get to work with the schools, the parents; it’s all about helping — more relationship building versus arresting.”

Westphal and three other school resource officers, or SROs, spend their days with the students of North Thurston School District’s 13 schools in a program that has been active for more than a decade.

Each is based at one of the district’s three high schools; each also covers a handful of the middle and elementary schools.

There are similar programs in Olympia and, starting this year, the Tumwater School District.

The Olympia School District has two SROs, based at Olympia and Capital high schools. Tumwater just started its program, with one officer. The officers start the relationship with students early, before they even start high school.

The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office is looking into applying for funding to start an SRO program of its own to cover schools in unincorporated Thurston County, said Lt. Greg Elwin.

The idea is still in the early stages.

BEING AN SRO

Officer Doug Curtright is based at Olympia High School, with a student population of more than 1,800. He also is responsible for eight other schools.

An officer for 25 years, Curtright is in his third year as an SRO.

He started the job with the keys to an old patrol car and the school. The rest was up to him.

Curtright’s tactic is to get to know the kids at their level and break down any barriers, starting with having them call him Doug.

“I’ve been called a lot worse in my 25-year career,” Curtright said, laughing.

He wanders the halls and grounds of the school eager to give passing students high-fives, fist pumps and greetings of “hey dudes.”

The Tumwater School District recently revived its school resource officer program, which hadn’t been in place in more than a decade.

Detective Chuck Liska started his new post in late January, and the school district has already noticed a change.

Black Hills High School saw a 70 percent drop in discipline referrals in February and March after Liska started. There were at least eight discipline referrals a day in February and March of 2012.

There was an average of two or fewer this year.

Beyond that, Liska has become a valuable resource to school staff, said Black Hills High School Assistant Principal Dave Myers.

“It’s nice with the other stuff going on around the country having a police officer present,” Myers said. “He has been able to talk to us about different situations and things that can happen, and been helpful cleaning up some of our emergency drills.”

On some days, Liska opts for civilian attire insead of his dress blues, looking more like a member of the staff, minus the fact he carries a badge and a .45-caliber Glock.

“I think there is a section of kids that don’t respond well to that,” Liska said of his uniform. “Either they have had a bad association with the uniform or are just uncomfortable.

“It helps break down those barriers with kids; makes you more approachable and they don’t notice the regalia so much.”

The idea stemmed from his first experience as an SRO at a Federal Way high school when Liska was fresh out of the academy.

“I thought my job was to be this stern disciplinarian and didn’t tolerate anything,” Liska said. “It doesn’t work with kids.”

Westphal’s first months on the job were similar, but it didn’t take long for him to realize a different tactic was needed.

“Coming off the street, you have a whole different style that’s different from a school,” said River Ridge High School Principal Karen Remy-Anderson. “Some conversations he and I had early on was that this is a school; we are about educating kids, and he got that.”

Before he could educate, and eventually mentor, Westphal knew he had to gain kids’ trust. His goal was to learn the name of every one of the school’s 1,050 students.

Some of those come easy, especially if there are multiple contacts.

River Ridge student Greyson DiGiacomo has no problem walking up to Westphal and giving him a high-five — and a little sarcasm.

“He’s a ninja,” said DiGiacomo, 18. “He will be hiding in a bush and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, boom! You are arrested.”

DiGiacomo admits to a few run-ins with the law as a minor, including two arrests, but attributes his relationship with Westphal to his decision to clean up his act now that he is an adult.

“I’m 18 now; I’ve learned,” DiGiacomo said.

He’s even passed on a warning to a handful of freshmen he’s seen in an area called “the pit” in the woods behind the school. Students have been caught smoking in the area.

“If you’re in the pit and pull weed out, you better put that away or he is going to open up a sixpack of whoop-ass,” DiGiacomo said.

Seventeen-year-old Xenophen Wilkins remembers his first contact with Westphal vividly.

The junior rode his bike to school one day and was late. He also forgot a bike lock, and opted to go stash his bicycle in the woods for safekeeping. Students can come and go as they please on the open campus.

That’s where he ran into Westphal.

“He asked me what I was doing, and I said hiding my bike,” Wilkins said. “He said, ‘OK, come to the office with me.’”

On the way off, Westphal handcuffed Wilkins’ ride to a bike rack.

“I didn’t want his bike to get stolen,” Westphal said.

“It was the funniest thing I have ever seen,” Wilkins said.

The two bonded over the incident, but Wilkins knows Westphal has a job to do, and appreciates his presence on campus, which makes him “feel comfortable at school,” especially in light of recent school shootings across the nation.

“Especially with Westphal, I trust him with everything involving my safety,” Wilkins said. “I know if anything ever happens, he is here to help us out.”

That feeling is mutual among staff members, which is why they were more than happy to have Westphal return to River Ridge for a second rotation when an SRO officer was offered a promotion. Westphal couldn’t refuse the opportunity to come back.

CRIME ON CAMPUS

While it’s a small piece of the job, the SROs do deal with criminal activity and, more commonly, school violations on campus.

Common issues in Olympia include minors in possession of alcohol or marijuana and students smoking. The biggest issue Curtright deals with are students leaving the closed campus at lunch.

“It kind of causes some havoc in the neighborhood,” Curtright said. “That’s tough for me, because when the rubber meets the road, I don’t have any real enforcement powers if the kid smokes (with) me across the street.”

Westphal commonly deals with electronics thefts and the occasional drug problem, the most prevalent of which is marijuana.

That suits Westphal’s expertise as a certified drug recognition expert, the only one in the state assigned to an SRO position.

“I use my skills to help the kids,” Westphal said. “If they get caught here, they do get suspended and required drug treatment.”

Students caught under the influence of drugs have their parents notified to help curb the issue early on before it becomes an addiction.

The contact more often than not does not end in an arrest. The focus is getting the student help, especially with new drugs surfacing all the time, Westphal said.

“Bath salts and spice came out two years ago, and real quick we got hit with it,” Westphal said. “Then new stuff started coming up; it’s always something new coming out, and the schools seem to get it first.”

Chelsea Krotzer: 360-754-5476 ckrotzer@theolympian.com theolympian.com/thisjustin @chelseakrotzer

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