Thursday November 21, 2013
I reach for the door handle, pull, but it doesn’t open. I try the other door. That one doesn’t open, either. Then I notice the intercom on the wall, but before I have a chance to press the buzzer, a student lets me in. She smiles, as if this is just part of the routine of gaining access to South Burlington High School. “It’s a new system,” the receptionist says. I think back thirty years and recall the high school I attended. No locked doors, and no police presence. That’s why I’m really here on this November morning: to learn why there’s a police car, with its silver and blue painted body and fire red license plate, parked outside of the high school, every day. I assume it’s a relatively new aspect of the system, like the locked doors. I also assume an officer is present just in case a student gets into a fight or someone’s iPhone goes missing. But that car, I learn from Kevin Grealis, an officer with the South Burlington Police Department since 2004 and currently SBHS’s School Resource Officer (SRO), is parked there to let the community know that he’s present to do much more than enforce the law.
According to Grealis, the School Resource Officer program in South Burlington started more than a decade ago, when the community advocated for police officers in the schools after the Columbine shootings. But did you know that SRO’s have actually been in existence since 1953, starting in Flint Michigan? Thanks to a federal grant, the South Burlington Police Department was able to assign officers as Student Resource Officers. Once the grant ran out, they recognized the program’s success and included it in their budget. Currently, there are three SRO officers – last year there was only one. Each position is held for a 6-year term, after which each officer needs to re-apply to continue in the role. But what exactly does an SRO do and what has made the program in our community succeed for more than a decade? First, one needs to enjoy working with children, which is why Grealis says he first became an School Resource Officer for the elementary and middle schools in 2006. He returned this past fall to SBHS after a year as a patrol officer.
Though SRO’s are law enforcement officials and help to solve drug and theft related crimes, they are also educators and counselors. Occasionally, Grealis teaches driver’s education and health classes. He is also a teacher for the Rape Aggression Defense System, a defense tactic program for woman.
Grealis is also present to offer input when the school holds events about issues like cyber bullying. In an age of advancing technology, harassment doesn’t only happen in the hallways or on the playground; it happens through text messaging, email, and Facebook.
“I consider myself a support person,” Grealis says. He’s available to students whether they are being bullied or just need someone to confide in. He helps students make good decisions, and he’s “a familiar face” to the high school population, Grealis says. Because of his presence in the schools for numerous years, he’s known many of the students since they were in elementary school.
When I finish interviewing Grealis, I make my way to the lobby where a group of seniors are gathered, laughing, together. I approach them and ask what they think about the SRO program. One of them says, “You mean Officer Kevin? He’s cool.” The other students nod in agreement. “We’ve known him since we were little, right?” He looks at his classmates for confirmation. Again, they all nod, and smile.
I learn that Grealis’ job extends beyond school walls. It’s not unusual for him to receive a phone call from concerned parents asking him for advice; he has even gone to their home to work with a teen who would not get out of bed to go to school. So Grealis is also a truancy officer. He explains that much of his work requires a “collaborative” approach. He works with the school district crisis team and other emergency services in the city regarding safety plans for the area.
I bump into Assistant Principle, Pat Phillips, who tells me that Grealis has been a “positive role model” for the students - that they are lucky to have him. Later, I speak with Officer Lindsay Wilson, the Student Resource Officer serving in the elementary and middle schools for the past 2 years. A teacher for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, better known as DARE, she takes the time to eat lunch with the students and enjoy recess with them. “It’s important to build relationships with them,” she says.Officer Jeff Favreau, who started this past July as a School Resource Officer in a dual role in the Tuttle Middle and Rice Memorial High Schools, takes time out of his busy schedule to speak with me on the phone. I ask him why he chose to be an SRO. “I was a patrol officer for 9 years, and this job sounded appealing.” What does he mean by appealing? “I like teaching, and working with kids,” he says. Rice hasn’t had an SRO in several years. So, for Favreau, “It’s nice to re-establish relationships, more positive ones with students, parents, and teachers.”
What are the overall themes here? Being “proactive,” as Phillips says. SRO’s are not looking to charge students with crimes; they are interested in helping students obtain needed resources. And, most importantly, on a daily basis they are building positive relationships. “We want the students to feel comfortable when they see a police officer in case they need us,” Wilson says. Grealis agrees.
So, the next time you see that sleek silver and blue police car parked outside of SBHS, know that it belongs to Officer Grealis, who is inside, engaged in conversation with a student.
Officers Grealis, Wilson, and Favreau are on the side of the students, always.
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin