In Holly Springs, a new breed of school police

March 1, 2013 

akenney@newsobserver.com

Officer Jay Bruner pauses at his office door, then steps into the flood of students that pulses through Holly Springs High School.

ItÂ’s 10 a.m., three and a half hours since his shift started, and BrunerÂ’s day is in full swing.

Spinning through the fast-moving crowd, he claps shoulders, bumps fists and passes out compliments as the crowd carries him down the stairs.

In the lunch room, he sidles up to a circle of teenage boys, leaning forward on his elbows to catch up with their talk.

Then heÂ’s over to the girlsÂ’ junior varsity basketball table, where no eyebrows raise at the 31-year-oldÂ’s presence.

Bruner moves between crowds like the popular kid in school – except he’s wearing a tactical vest, a Taser, a pistol and a skull-and-crossbones tattoo.

“My job is to protect the school and enforce state law,” Bruner said last week. “But that’s probably 5 to 10 percent of what I do, and it’s my least favorite part.”

As a school resource officer, the Holly Springs police officer is a member of a growing branch of law enforcement, one thatÂ’s at the center of the nationÂ’s post-Sandy Hook massacre debate about security in schools.

And as the Wake County Public School System reviews school security, including proposals to spend millions on unarmed guards or officers for all its schools, there may be no better prototype to consider than Holly Springs.

Officers in all schools

Proportionally, Holly Springs puts more money and manpower into its school-policing program than most any of its neighbors.

As part of a $300,000 school police budget, Holly Springs High School has two officers, while most Wake County high schools have one. The townÂ’s middle schools each have a full-time officer, while many Wake middle schools share or lack an officer.

Most notably, Holly Springs rotates an armed officer among its three elementary schools, a practice that governments across the state are considering now. Already, Orange County Schools has deputies in four of its seven elementary schools, and most local law agencies check in on all their schools periodically.

To critics, police officers in schools are a waste of money, or an omen of a “police state,” as one Raleigh resident put it at a recent school board meeting. Others see armed adults as a valuable last defense against a school shooter.

The officers see themselves as something more – counselors, mentors, older siblings – “all those touchy-feely words,” Bruner said. He’s the “artsy-fartsiset cop you’ll ever meet,” he said – part of a new breed that’s only emerged in the last couple decades.

“The SROs were unheard of when I was growing up,” said Sgt. Robert Whitman, president of the N.C. Association of School Resource Officers, which formed in 1993.

In those early years, “it was whoever got in trouble in the department, they stuck him over there,” Whitman said. “And that’s not how it’s working anymore.”

School officers have grown in popularity, from 249 school resource officers in 1995 to 849 officers in 2009, according to a survey by the stateÂ’s Center for the Prevention of School Violence, which was de-funded in 2010.

Counselors, not courtrooms

In Holly Springs, Police Chief John Herring’s goal is to find officers with an air of approachability – men and women who can get beyond the badge and talk to kids.

Bruner has memorized thousands of names and details. When the kids are in the hall, he interacts constantly, having conversations about sports, phones, new clothes and police techniques.

In his office, he introduces students to a photo of his old hard-rock band, “Rhetoric,” wherein long locks spill from the officer’s now-shaved head.

Part of itÂ’s a love for kids and concern for their well-being.

“Our main role is to deter kids from the justice system completely,” Bruner said.

To do that, paradoxically enough, the officer aims to be the person to whom students will say anything.

But that goal doesn’t change an officer’s instinct for investigation. While the officers are interacting with kids, they’re “ getting information without interrogating them,” said Bruner, who’s completing a bachelor’s degree at Mount Olive College.

“General intelligence” pops up everywhere – school police hear drug talk on social media, school rumors about fights, even tips about parties from peeved non-invitees.

Even so, only about 15 percent of the chargeable offenses committed in BrunerÂ’s purview go to trial, the officer estimated. To him, the real value of a tip is the chance to send an offender to a counselor rather than a courtroom.

This kind of police work has become standard in high schools across the country, and itÂ’s symbolic of departmentsÂ’ move toward proactive policing. Increasingly, officers cast themselves as helpers and builders, not watchmen.

Early interactions with officers

Holly Springs is trying to build that shift into its childrenÂ’s upbringing. The town has the largest proportion of young children in the county, and those children are growing up intimately involved with law enforcement.

Sgt. Rick Leach is dressed for business on his Wednesday rounds through Holly Springs’ elementary schools – full uniform, not the short-sleeved version that’s supposed to put students at ease.

No matter. Holly SpringsÂ’ head school officer has a table full of kids lining up for high-fives anyway.

“Who am I? Who am I?” he asks. “I’m an officer, so when you’re with me, I got your back.”

The word that comes up most often for these officers is “rapport,” a trusting relationship between officer and citizen. If a child is raised with an officer nearby, the theory goes, he or she will be more trusting of the police, more ready to report a crime or trust an officer as a role model.

ItÂ’s a goal that requires a lot of time and money to pull off. Holly Springs, with its rapid growth of affluent neighborhoods, is in a better position than most towns to fund a widespread school police force. The town government itself funds more than 70 percent of the school-policing budget.

For now, the school system has tabled its consideration of multi-million dollar proposals to expand the force of unarmed security guards or school police forces. Instead, the system is convening a task force on school security.

The first meeting is next month.

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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