GREAT FALLS — Classes are underway for the 2019-2020 school year for Great Falls Public Schools.
For the first week of the new year, people living in Great Falls can expect increased police presence around schools. It’s a common practice to have more officers visible for the start of a new school year. Throughout the year though, there is a constant police presence inside the buildings thanks to School Resource Officers.
The SRO program is a partnership between the Great Falls Police Department and Great Falls Public Schools to make the classroom safe and secure for students. There are many facets to the job of SRO. They act as security guards, rule enforcers, counselors, and social workers.
“I have the tools and training to address a threat, but most of my time is spent working with kids, their families, teachers, outside resources community entities, to get them on a path where they’re realizing what they’re doing is wrong, could be criminal, and prevent them from entering the criminal justice system is our goal,” explained SRO Detective Aaron Frick.
Every summer a SRO report is released, highlighting what officers dealt with the prior school year.
According to the report for the 2018-2019 school year, SRO’s responded to 660 complaints, or calls for service, for things like assaults, thefts, vandalism and more. That’s up from 572 during the 2017-2018 school year. It’s also the most calls in seven years. Captain Jeff Newton, who overseas the SRO program, said a big reason for the increase in calls last year was vaping.
“We took a zero-tolerance policy on kids using vapes in schools, So a lot of that increase is based on minor in possession of tobacco citations that our SRO’s issued students for vaping inside the school building,” explained Captain Newton.
The offices also responded to more suspicious calls.
“In my world, suspicious isn’t bad because people are paying attention to what’s going on around the schools and they’ll say hey something doesn’t look right,” said Captain Newton.
“Kids trust coming to me, the whole snitches get stitches, It’s kind of out the window. I mean you still hear it, but kids are comfortable coming and reporting when they have concerns about another student, students journaling something,” said Detective Frick.
Building trust and relationships with students is a key part of the job. A lot of that is done through informal counseling. SRO’s spent 410 hours doing just that, holding students accountable and talking with kids about life issues. “Social media is a big part of this generation’s world, and with that I really spend a lot of time teaching them digital citizenship, how to be responsible how to be respectful,” said Detective Frick.
For the third year, SRO’s implemented the Juvenile Diversion Program. The program is based on a national model that gives juvenile offenders between the ages of eight and 17 an alternative to the justice system. A total of 62 Great Falls students entered the program, and all but one successfully completed it.
Officers also trained school staff and personnel in emergency response to armed intruders, oversaw protocol for crisis intervention, helped in welfare checks, reviewed custody paperwork and investigated threats.
“We investigate until we determine if it is a viable threat. If so, the school administration will deal with that student administratively. If it’s not viable, then we have conversations with that young person to say this is not right,” explained Captain Newton.
During the 2018-2019 school year, SRO’s met with 1,747 students to offer guidance and support. Of those 1,747 students who sought time with an SRO, 162 were cited or entered the Juvenile Diversion Program.
“My goal is try to do my part to maintain that positiveness, work with the kids to let them know I’m there to support them, to keep them safe, I’m there for any reason that they need,” said Detective Frick.
Here are the School Resource Officers for the 2019-2020 school year:
Det. Clint Houston - Great Falls High School
Det. Nick Taylor - CMR High School
Det. Aaron Frick - North Middle School, elementary schools
MPO Jesse Rosteck - East Middle School, elementary schools