Communication Counts for Hickory’s SROs

Communication Counts for Hickory’s SROs
Posted on 03/04/2020
school resource officers

Communication Counts for
  
Hickory’s SROs

(By HPS Director of Communications, Beverly Snowden)

 

There’s 100 years of combined public service between the five School Resource Officers (SROs) at Hickory Public Schools and their supervisor, Lieutenant Scott Hildebrand. It’s that valued experience that contributes to preparedness for placing the safety of students and staff as their number one priority.

But even with a century of combined experience, the job doesn’t come easy. The ratio is a challenge with six officers from the Hickory Police Department (HPD) ensuring safety for approximately 4,100 students and 500 employees. With exceptional recruitment, professional training, dedication to the job, and a gift for working with kids—these men and women have consistently proven to be a respected asset.

The five school-assigned SROs include Rhonda Bunt, Anthony Callicutt, Bryson Grier, Joshua Null, and Stephanie Roberts.  

According to Hildebrand, a police veteran with 27 years of service (25 with the HPD), the SRO team works in tandem with school administration and with Angela Simmons, HPS director of student services.  “They partner to handle situations with the best decisions made collectively.  The supervision of students and school surroundings starts before the school day begins—and remains constant until the school day ends,” said Hildebrand. For after-hour school events, the police officers may take off-duty assignments, such as police coverage during athletic events.

Training for the job is intense—through enrollment with the North Carolina Justice Academy, studying juvenile law and completing multiple programs designed for School Resource Officers.

Undoubtedly, there’s always going to be challenges.  “Crime is crime—and whether it takes place with the younger age or on the high school level, the SRO must be ready to step in and assess the situation. That’s why we find it so important to build relationships and communicate with the students,” said Hildebrand. “It’s crucial for the students and their parents to know that we want the best for all. Consistency and fairness is essential.”

Master Police Officer, Bryson Grier, who serves Hickory High School, agrees.  “On any given day, we want our students to feel completely safe. From sitting down with their friends and enjoying their lunch break --- to walking to class --- to catching the bus at the end of the day, students need to know that we are here to support them. It all starts with building that support of effective communication,” said Grier.

So how do the officers build that support? “Some students grow up respecting the police, while other students might harbor a fear of authority based on an out-of-school situation or domestic matter; but as a team, we all agree,” said Grier. “It’s about building communication with trusting relationships.”

At Hickory Career and Arts Magnet High, Master Police Officer, Anthony Callicutt, shares that he must be an active listener with the students. “The students want to know they have a voice. What they tell you has importance. Some students will even visit with the school’s SRO before visiting with a counselor. We have to relate, listen, and build that trust. Some parents hate law enforcement because of their own struggles through life, but we see this as an opportunity to change relationships with students—and eventually, with their families,” said Callicutt.

At Grandview Middle School, Officer Rhonda Bunt, says that students need to talk it out. “Often times, they won’t talk to their teachers; but they also do not want to end up assigned to ‘In-School Suspension (ISS),’ so I spend time with students, letting them cool down. We might start off with something as simple as exchanging about their ‘shoes’ or favorite pass time. It’s important to understand their home life—discovering any struggles the students bring with them each morning.”

Master Police Officer, Joshua Null, serves Northview Middle as well as Viewmont and Jenkins Elementary Schools. “I’ve learned through the years that the tone of our voice truly helps to calm students. The students need to be treated with respect—without the yelling. We often deal with repeat offenders, so we gain understanding of the students’ areas of weakness and their strengths. Having that knowledge is helpful in responding to their needs. It’s rewarding when students return to visit with us, stating, ‘Hey, man, you remember me? I’m cool now.’  We go through their struggles with them—and in the end, that communication helps to create an understood knowledge,” said Null.

“Nobody cares what you know until they know that you care,” said Master Police Officer, Stephanie Roberts. With 30 years in service, including teaching Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) and working as a Crime Prevention Officer, Roberts believes connecting with the students as early as possible provides a greater chance for positive interaction when they become teenagers.

“Through a combination of different approaches, including an active D.A.R.E. program, working with the school counselors, helping out with the Lunch Buddy Program, and daily interaction with students, we can assist the students in developing decision-making skills. Handling stress, learning to communicate, to listen, and recognizing significant life lessons—are all worthy goals. The Golden Rule never goes out of style. Treat kids how you want to be treated,” added Roberts.

One of the biggest challenges for the SROs is the absence of parents. “It hurts when parents aren’t there, actively involved in their children’s lives in a healthy manner,” said Callicutt. “The students who are repeat offenders often have no positive support on the home front—and it’s important for all of us to maintain a strong line of communication even if students are suspended. We communicate not only with the students, but with their parents, as we pursue what is best for their child.”

In addition to policing on campus, the SROs are also community volunteers, coaches, and mentors. They work hard to support the students beyond the school grounds. They’ve been known to buy school supplies and clothing for students, out of their own pocket.

Hildebrand shared that it’s important for all of the police officers to take time out from the stress of their jobs, finding their own paths to relax and enjoy life. When not on the job, the SRO team enjoys various personal outlets:  Bunt appreciates family time, especially being a mom to her 13-year old;  Callicutt clears the air by taking some solitude runs;  Grier hits the gym—and is taking classes in heating and air conditioning;  Roberts refreshes her days through Bible Study Fellowship, strengthening her spiritual faith;  Null enjoys cardio workouts, coaches youth football and serves as a referee for various sports;  and Hildebrand loves quiet time to read police fiction, especially the works by author, Agatha Christie.

All of the SROs agree that perhaps the greatest challenge in helping students is the discovery of the challenges at home. Unfortunately, not every home environment is picture-perfect.  Some students arrive to school already feeling broken. Due to limited resources at home, necessary staples in life such as heat, water, electricity, and food—are challenges for too many students, according to Hildebrand.

When home challenges enter the scenario, Angela Simmons, through HPS student services, responds to the needs and works closely with area agencies to assist the families.  But everyday staples are not the only barrier to the well-being of students. Some students, upon their return home following a school day, face not only empty food cabinets, but an empty home. Supervision and family support may lack for various reasons. And there are cases when the student returns home to domestic violence, criminal activity, abuse, or a simple lack of interest.

All of these factors can contribute to a disruptive school day.  When the situation warrants additional assistance, the SRO is called to intervene. Most times, the SRO can defuse the disruption with personal communication. Removing the student(s) from the immediate situation and taking the time to exchange, perhaps sharing a snack, and giving the student a chance to air their anguish, helps the SRO to identify factors and bring resolve.

“Our School Resource Officers (in addition to the Long View Police Department that serves Southwest Primary located within the Town of Long View) are clearly helping HPS improve with regards to school discipline concerns,” said Simmons. “The most recent report presented to the NC General Assembly by the NC Department of Education shows that Hickory Public Schools is among five NC school districts to witness a three-year decrease in the rate of crime, short-term suspensions, and dropouts by at least 50 percent. HPS is the only district in the area to represent these solid gains.”

Serving as a School Resource Officer is not for everyone. The demands require quick-thinking, problem-solving, and effective communication on a relatively quiet day. And then there’s the steadfast mindset to be prepared for the unknown. National news dictates an awareness that places all School Resource Officers on constant alert—even on the seemingly calmest of days. It’s the nature of the job.

At Hickory Public Schools, the students and staff—and even family members, have expressed their gratitude for the School Resource Officers. The partnership with the Hickory Police Department helps to bring a sense of calm and certainly another level of safety to the school day.

As each SRO works with students, staff, and family members, they make it very clear: communication counts. And for that, all of us at Hickory Public Schools are extremely thankful.

 

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