It’s a job that requires wearing more than one hat, school resource officers are trained not just to be law enforcers, but also teachers and counselors.
“You may not be arresting a child, you might be just hugging someone who needs a shoulder to cry on,” said deputy Will Stroup, the Greenwood County Sheriff’s Office resource officer for Greenwood High School.
In his seven years as a resource officer, Stroup said he’s learned that building trust and rapport with students is key to doing his job. It’s how to earn students’ trust so they’ll be willing to talk with him, and it’s how he builds a network of people who can alert him to problems before things get too serious.
With the start of a new school year, Stroup said there’s one major change in state law that will affect some students. Where the state used to consider legal adulthood as starting at 17, now someone has to be 18 to be considered an adult
“Now all the students who have a criminal referral, unless you’re 18 you’re being referred to the state Department of Juvenile Justice,” he said. “What we would run into is that family court law says parents are responsible for their kids until they’re 18.”
In earlier years, if a scenario came up where a 17-year-old left home, officers ran into a conflict where family court made the parents responsible for the teen even though other elements of law consider the teen an adult capable of making their own decisions. The change also resolves potential unfairness, Stroup said, of when two teens get into a fight and one is 16 and would end up being referred to the Department of Juvenile Justice while a 17-year-old would pay fines and fees going through the normal court system.
The shift means more students will be considered juveniles rather than adults, which in the event they get in trouble with the law means their record won’t follow them once they turn 18. Stroup said that improves some students’ chances when facing background checks as part of college or job applications.
Stroup said the issue he runs into most at school is students picking fights, along with the rare drug complaint. He said recent violence in the community hasn’t spilled over into schools, which remain a safe place for them to learn.
“For a teenager, thinking of places they’d hang out, the safest place you can send them is school,” he said. “We’ve seen a significant reduction in the number of fights here at the high school in recent years.”
The biggest offense he’s seen at Greenwood High is students vaping, whether in the bathrooms or even in class. Since vapes leave no lingering smell, he said it’s been getting harder to catch students who have brought a vape onto campus.
But enforcing the laws and rules is only part of an SRO’s job. Stroup said he’s frequently teaching safety classes to students and running training sessions for his fellow officers. Officers have taken training classes on how to respond to active shooter situations, they’ve taken a Secret Service-run class on dealing with school threats and Stroup said he’s always on the lookout for other training opportunities.
“That’s probably the biggest change in recent years, we’re training more and more,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that you respond to a call the way you train for it.”
At Brewer Middle School, 17-year school resource officer Gary Moore said beside breaking up fights and investigating drama students get into on social media, he also coaches football and soccer. He said through coaching, sitting in on classes and talking with students during lunch he builds relationships and connections that benefit him in all aspects of the job.
“I love talking to the elementary school kids,” he said. “I try to teach them I’m here to help you.”
By showing students respect, he said he receives it back. Students will tell him about things that are happening in and out of school, and even former students of his will show him trust and respect when he goes to talk to them for a case he’s working.
“Our number one thing is to keep these kids in a safe environment where they can learn and make the best of their lives,” Moore said.