Washington County Sheriff Mike Robinson wasn't surprised when a bill to ban police officers from serving as school resource officers (SRO) was introduced in the Nebraska Legislature this session.
"There are certain people out there who have created this false narrative that it's a pathway to prison," Robinson said.
In introducing Legislative Bill 589, Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers said SRO programs "disproportionately impact students of color and those with disabilities, creating the same toxic, discriminatory impact found in society at large."
"It is counterproductive to the purpose and goals of education, to convert conduct that in the past was handled withing the school context, into a basis for arrest and entanglement in the court system with the possibility of being locked up," Chambers said, according a report in the Legislative Update.
The Legislature's Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on the bill Feb. 14.
The committee took no action on the bill, which was good news to local law enforcement, who say the SROs are beneficial from both safety and community relationships standpoints.
The Blair Police Department and Washington County Sheriff's Office have SROs assigned to county schools. Officer Bob Leehy is in his first year as Blair's SRO and Deputy Nicole Kruse has been the SRO for Fort Calhoun, Arlington and St. Paul's Lutheran School in Arlington for about two years. Each department has had SROs for about 20 years.
Robinson and Blair Police Chief Joe Lager are happy with the programs they have developed.
Initially, some departments across the country began their SRO programs in the wake of the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. By having a police presence in the school, officials hoped it would give students and staff a sense of safety and security.
But, in the years that have followed, the program has developed beyond the safety aspect, Lager and Robinson said.
"To me, safety has become the secondary part," Lager said. "It is a huge benefit — the security you have — but the primary reason is to build relationships."
"First and foremost, they are there to develop relationships with the kids so they are comfortable talking with the officers," Robinson said. "We want them to develop a relationship where they are comfortable with the officer and will come talk to her."
Kruse, he said, has succeeded in relationship-building, improving what was established by Deputy Fred Carritt, who was the SRO for 15 years. Robinson said Carritt and Kruse's ability to communicate and get out and talk with students and staff were key in developing the program and showed that they are a person just like them.
It's the same scenario in Blair. Lager said former SRO Dave Westerholt, who served at Blair Community Schools for 14 years, had such a good relationship with students that they gave him the nickname "Hollywood."
Lager said Leehy is starting to build relationships as well.
Being an SRO isn't a job for everyone, but Robinson and Lager believe they have the right people in place.
Robinson is working to find a second SRO so that Fort Calhoun and Arlington can have a full-time officer of their own during the 2019-20 school year.
"You have to find someone who is the right fit and that's what I'm doing right now," he said.
As SROs Kruse and Leehy not only talk with students one-on-one or in small groups, they also serve on their respective district's safety committees and give presentations on a range of topics.
Kruse said she's conducted active shooter training sessions, given presentations on drugs and alcohol and rules of the road class to students. She's also read books to elementary students and provided information to parents on social media apps and has done presentations for teachers.
Kruse loves what she's doing.
"There is no bad day in the school," she said. "Kids give you high-fives, fist-bumps and hugs," she said. "Kids come up and talk to you like you are their best friends."
Blair High School Principal Tom Anderson said he's had the luxury of having a police presence in the school his entire school year as an administrator.
"There are so many benefits," he said
Besides relationship building and serving as a mentor or confidant to students, Anderson said an SRO has the ability to offers a connection between the community and the school, provides proactive communication on new trends being seen in community that we want out of schools and has the ability to talk to students on positive note so to prevent escalation of problems.
He said reaction time for emergencies is also immediate, the SRO reduces tension/ anxiety in heated meetings with parents/students; his presence at all buildings helps with variety of issues - seat belts/ car seats at younger levels, traffic congestion and child abuse and the program increases safety in and around school for students and staff.
Fort Calhoun High School Principal Jerry Green is pleased with the SRO program.
"We like the idea of having an SRO available to our school district," he said.
Arlington High School Principal Aaron Pfingsten agreed, saying Kruse has become part of the school's culture.
"She does a great job with the kids," he said. "She is a big part of our safety committee and safety teams and setting up inter-agency meetings, so we can improve our emergency practices."
Lager said, even with the recent staff turnover that has left them shorthanded at times, his department remains committed to the program.
The city also won't let budget woes at Blair Community Schools keep them from providing the service. Earlier this month, the Blair City Council agreed to waive payment from the district for the remainder of the 2018-19 school year.
As far as Chamber's bill, Kruse believes other departments in the state have the similar goals as those in Washington County. Kruse and Leehy are both certified through the National Association of School Resources Officers, having gone through a 40-hour class.Through that week-long class, the two have interacted with other SROs.
"There are a lot more school resource officers, like me, that are there as mentors and counselors than they are there to fight and arrest," she said. "We are there to help and mentor kids more than anything."
Chambers wasn't the only senator to introduce a bill pertaining to SROs this session.
LB390, introduced by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, would require SROs or security guards to attend a minimum of 40 hours of training and a minimum of one administrator and one teacher to attend a minimum of 20 hours of training focused on school-based law enforcement.