Many area teenagers are fighting secret battles in their lives that friends, teachers, guidance counselors and even parents may know nothing about. Erratic behavior and anger can seemingly surface from nowhere, but it often has deeper roots than what’s visible, and sometimes it can have dire consequences for their futures.
But there is help for these at-risk middle and high school students from an unexpected place – School Resource Officers (SRO’s).
SRO’s are law enforcement officers who are responsible for providing security and crime prevention services at both middle schools and high schools. SRO's are typically employed by a local police or sheriff’s agency and work closely with school administrators in an effort to create a safer environment for both students and staff. The responsibilities of SRO's are similar to regular police officers in that they have the ability to make arrests, respond to calls for service, and document incidents that occur within their jurisdiction.
That is the general explanation of an SRO, but their role in a school goes far beyond that job description.
The Apopka Police Department has five SRO’s at three Apopka schools – Apopka High School, Apopka Memorial Middle School and Wolf Lake Middle School. Sergeant Carlos Joseph is a 29-year veteran of law enforcement, including 19 years with the APD, five years as an SRO at Apopka High School, and six years as the Supervisor of the SRO department. He is also the program’s most passionate advocate.
“You build such tight bonds with the schools that you basically become part of the staff,” he said. “Every time an SRO leaves, the school is devastated. They send them away with gifts and they just don’t want them to leave.”
Apopka Memorial Middle School (AMMS) lost its SRO at the end of the 2015-16 school year when Officer Jose Diaz transferred to Apopka High School. He was at AMMS for three years. Officer Barry Brown, who has eight years of experience in law enforcement, is replacing Diaz. Brown worked with The Titusville Police Department for six years as a Crime Investigation Detective before signing-on with the APD two years ago. He thinks the role of SRO suits his desire to help the students he is sworn to protect.
“Our main priority is the safety and protection of the students and the school employees. But it's also our job to be good role models for the students. We want to build good relationships in the schools because unfortunately not all adults teach children that police officers are good. So this is a good opportunity to show them we are. I enjoy working with kids. I’ve coached sports for several years and I want to be a mentor for them. Working as a School Resource Officer goes hand-in-hand with mentoring. I am excited for the opportunity.”
Sgt. Joseph agrees with that assessment, and goes on to list the many hats an SRO might wear on any given day.
“The job of an SRO is unpredictable. The first call of duty each day is to make sure the kids get to class safely… after that it could be talking to 25 kids about their day…or about sports…or their problems at home. You become a parent to some of them…a counselor, a friend. Sometimes you have to be a cop and enforce the law. You have to make arrests. You have to break up fights. You have to provide guidance and life coaching. You serve so many different roles that no two days are the same.”
And while SRO’s are still police officers first and foremost, the environment is vastly different from a traditional patrol officer.
“These kids form a bond with the SRO’s,” said Joseph. “They may give a teacher a hard time or cuss out a principal…but then we show up and they'll calm down and be okay, because they know us. They know we’re not just there to arrest them. We’re going to treat them like a human being. That’s one of the biggest differences too on patrol…the officer going from call, to call, to call…you don’t really have the luxury of having time on your side and spending a lot of time on a situation to give it that personal touch… where an SRO can spend two hours with a kid over an incident. Here you have the time of providing a more personalized service for these kids.”
And it’s the time available for SRO’s that allows them to help the at-risk kids that are dealing with secret battles that could ruin their lives.
“One of the biggest impacts we can have is to reform an at-risk kid… and the best way to do that is through rapport. We treat them with respect. We afford them the opportunity to be treated with respect. We try to establish a great rapport with them. And if we can do that it helps us because it reduces the amount of delinquent acts they commit. And that will help the school because it will help minimize the amount of disciplinary issues it will get with that particular student. We take a pro-active approach to helping these kids not get into anymore trouble. We let them know we are someone they can come to when they have a problem with another kid that they may want to fight…and they do come to us … and sometimes we can talk them out of it. And it’s over. There’s no fight. No violation of probation. It’s important that we work with these at-risk kids. We can talk sense into them. And as SRO’s we have the time to do that.”
But not only does this program help students, it’s also helpful in solving crimes throughout the community.
“Another asset of the SRO program is intelligence gathering,” said APD Captain Randall Fernandez . “These students live in our communities and they know what’s going on. Because of the SRO’s relationships with them we are able to gather a lot of details and solve a lot of crimes that we would otherwise not be able to. It’s a very critical part of our law enforcement function. Not just protection of kids and teachers, but by the very fact of the amount of information we can get through these students.”
Fernandez went on to explain the importance the SRO program is to the community.
“It’s important we have our law enforcement functions in these schools as a reflection of our investment in the community. We can’t de-value that importance that we have on it…and it’s something that we’ve had as long as I can remember and it’s certainly something the City of Apopka wants to continue.”
Joseph agrees with the value of this program considering who it is they are protecting, and thinks Brown is the man for the job.
“He’s been here a short time and I bet all the kids know him already. Everybody will know him, and that’s why we have to have experienced people in these positions. We trust them with the well-being of our children – our most cherished asset."
Brown acknowledged his popularity among students after only a couple of weeks at their school.
“I attended the Apopka High football game and there were kids coming up to me already giving me high fives and saying hello, he said.”
“Officer Brown is here by himself (at AMMS) and he may be expected to make a critical decision," said Joseph. "He won't necessarily be able to call me and ask my advice. He will have to make that decision on his own in some instances, and that’s why we need experienced people like him that utilize good judgment. We trust them with thousands of kids.”
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