As Wayne County Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Halvorsen returns to road patrol, what he will miss the most about his time as a school resource officer for the Sodus Central School District are the relationships he built with the students and staff that he is confident will always be there.
“They really are a family,” said Halvorsen of his stint at Sodus, which officially ended Dec. 31 when a grant to pay for the position ran out. “It took three years to build these relationships with the students. They were freshmen and now they are seniors ready to graduate. I’ll probably join them at graduation. Building those relationships was pretty cool.”
It was four years ago when the school district received a Safe Schools Healthy Students grant. Interviews were conducted at the sheriff’s office, and as the deputy in charge of 27 Explorers in the Police Explorers Post, Halvorsen was the ideal candidate for the job.
At one time, several schools across the county had officers walking the halls on a daily basis, reaching out to students to provide support where and when needed. During tough economic times, the school resource officers were cut, but Wayne County Sheriff Barry Virts would like to bring them back.
“I would love to put together a county-wide resource officer program,” he said. “I believe everyone felt safer when there was an officer in the school. It’s a more proactive approach to public safety. The model in Sodus has been fantastic.”
A typical day for Halvorsen was walking the schools, performing safety audits, working with administration and developing lasting relationships with students. Halvorsen even taught classes — the most recent was a non-bullying class addressing the federally mandated schools law Dignity For All Students Act. Available to all students, Halvorsen said administration kept him informed about at-risk kids. These students, he said, typically have problems at home and he worked extra hard to form connections with them while they were at school.
“We make it a safe environment, a welcoming environment at school,” the deputy said. “It’s been very successful. It’s an ongoing process and some students are harder to crack.”
But Halvorsen said it was definitely worth the effort. In building relationships with the kids, they also learned that police officers are not a “machine” that go out and just arrest people, Halvorsen said.
“You’re walking through the paces with them,” he said. “You’re not their parent, but you’re somebody they can rely on.”
Virts would like to place a deputy in every school across the county. To accomplish this, he would need 11 deputies and one supervisor for the program. The deputies would be assigned to handle any problem that might arise in the school, offer security for students and staff and create preventative programs in the school. Virts said they could coordinate with state police and local police departments, and during summer months, those extra deputies would be available to provide “security” at festivals — typically an overtime expense for the sheriff’s office.
“It’s a quality of life program,” Virts said. “It would enhance public safety in and around the schools and help youth avoid trouble and make good choices.”
It’s a project the sheriff says he has been vocal about for years, but funding the program is a major problem. Virts said his number crunching has pegged the program’s cost at about $1.6 million.
“It’s a worthwhile endeavor,” said Jim Hoffman, chairman of the Wayne County Board of Supervisors. “I’d support it, but how it would get funded is the question.”
Hoffman said nothing has been formally presented to the Board of Supervisors.
Halvorsen said it would be money well spent.
During his tenure as resource officer, he helped develop better security in the all three schools in Sodus. He also taught students in classes, like the anti-bullying class, that were not part of the standard curriculum but were valuable nonetheless. The Higher Ground Breakfast Club was for students who are making the grade, but are frustrated with disruptions in classes and their learning, often caused by other students, Halvorsen said. During their breakfast, these students were able to hash out possible solutions or just vent their frustrations.
He also started a roundtable that allowed students to discuss issues in the school — right down to the lunch food — and how they could resolve them. Halvorsen said it was all about empowering the students.
“The idea was to strengthen the students, to build leaders,” Halvorsen said. “We were starting to work hard on the middle school so they would enter high school as strong leaders.”
Without the grant, the school cannot afford to keep Halvorsen on, and Virts said the grant funding just isn’t there anymore. For Halvorsen, leaving means the programs he started will end due to lack of staff to continue them.
“(Schools) need to have (officers) in there,” Halvorsen said. “You have to wonder why that money isn’t there. Our job is to protect everyone. What better way to start than with our children.”
There’s no guarantee that a school resource officer could stop all trouble from occurring, Halvorsen said, but consider this: In Colorado, it took the school resource officer just 80 seconds to end the violence.
“You have to weigh the whole picture and not just look at at a tree in the middle of the portrait,” the deputy said. “We often just put band aids on things. School resource officers will build Wayne County, will deter crime and make our communities safer.”
Halvorsen said the greatest benefit a school resource officer can offer parents is peace of mind.
“They’d know that when they are at the school, from the time they get on the bus until until they get off again at home,” he said, “that they are, number one, safe, that they are learning and that they are building relationships they can use when they leave school, go to college, when they get married, throughout their lives.”