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School Resource Officers at the ready for a new year.
OAKLAND — When students enter the buildings of the Garrett County Public Schools next Tuesday, school resource officers will also be at their assignments, prepared to handle whatever situation arises.
The group is headed by Clark Warnick, who is the manager of Safety & Security. He explained that he worked for the Garrett County Sheriff’s Office for 27 years, and for the last six he was an SRO, still employed by the Sheriff’s Office.
“Immediately after retirement, I took this job in safety and security with GCPS,” he said.
He noted that the program started in the county in 2013, shortly after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
“The program initially started with two SROs in 2013 and grew to six in 2021,” Warnick said. “I retired in 2021 and my position has not been filled as of yet, which leaves the program with a total of five SROs.”
These include Dfc. Eric Parks, Cpl. Tim Sanders, Dfc. Joe Casey, Dfc. Derrick Rhodes and Dfc. Jenna Wilt. The five officers are shared over the 12 schools in the system. Dfc. Casey is currently at Southern High School, Dfc. Wilt at Northern High and Middle School (also currently Grantsville Elementary), Dfc. Rhodes at Southern Middle and Broad Ford Elementary, Cpl. Sanders at Yough Glades, Swan Meadow and Crellin Elementary and Dfc. Parks at Route 40 and Friendsville Elementary.
In 2014, an active assailant training program was implemented for GCPS staff and students. This program is called A.L.I.C.E. (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter & Evacuate).
The SROs also teach drug resistance and awareness to sixth graders through a program called WINNERS. This covers a wide range such as social media, alcohol, vaping and online bullying.
Warnick reported that other programs that have been implemented or are in process are the Raptor Visitor Management System, with Emergency Management Software that has Alert, Accountability and Reunification programs and the Navigate360 ALICE eLearning training.
“As we can afford it, we’ve been building security vestibules at all of our schools, which controls entry into the school,” Warnick said. “We just completed Northern High School. All the schools have them with the exception of three, and we’re working on obtaining grant money to do those three, hopefully next summer.”
According to Warnick, the number one duty of the officers is to guard and protect the lives of the students and faculty of the Garrett County Public Schools.
Other responsibilities are to establish liaison with school principals, faculty, and students, to inform the students of their rights and responsibilities as lawful citizens, and to provide liaison between students and social agencies which provide needed services.
In addition, they participate in the Parent-Teacher-Student Association meetings as requested and participate in campus activities, student organizations and athletic events when invited and feasible.
Warnick explained that they help to prevent juvenile delinquency through close contact with students and school personnel.
They also enforce federal, state and local criminal laws and ordinances and assist school officials with the enforcement of Board of Education policies and administrative regulations regarding student conduct.
Another important duty is to investigate criminal activity committed on or adjacent to school property.
In special situations, the officers counsel public school students, such as in cases of students suspected of engaging in criminal misconduct, when requested by the principal or the principal’s designee or by the parents of the student.
They also answer questions that students may have about criminal or juvenile law.
SROs are trained to refrain completely from functioning as a school disciplinarian.
“The school resource officer is not to be involved in the enforcement of disciplinary infractions that do not constitute violations of the law,’ Warnick said.
They are also trained to be aware at all times of the responsibility to improve the image of the uniformed law enforcement officer in the eyes of the students and the community.
In some cases, the SROs assist other law enforcement officers with outside investigations concerning students attending the school(s) to which the SRO is assigned.
They confer with the principal to develop plans and strategies to prevent and/or minimize dangerous situations on or near the campus or involving students at school-related activities.
Finally, they perform all duties of a deputy sheriff.
“Deputies are normally chosen by their life and work experience, communications skills, personality and dedication to duty,” Warnick said.
The officers go through the standard police academy and training as well as an 80-hour SRO training course specific to SRO duties.
Warnick noted that the area is getting back to some normalcy from the COVID restrictions this year.
He spoke about future plans.
“GCPS is looking to build a School Security Employee program that is much like the SRO program, but is a contractual position,” he said. “SSEs would be employed by GCPS rather than the Sheriff’s Office. The SRO program would still be maintained and the main point of contact for law enforcement actions.”
Warnick noted that the greatest success of the program is building positive relationships and trust between Garrett County students/parents and law enforcement as a whole.
Dfc. Casey reported that when he got the assignment, it was a point of duty at the time, but he’s adapted to it and learned to love it since then.
“I think it’s a necessity, especially in this day and age,” he said.
Dfc. Wilt finds that the assignment is a bit of a positive change from the daily hustle in patrol and sometimes seeing the ugly side of that.
“Coming in and getting to be around the kids and making an impact in their life is definitely a nice position to have here at the Sheriff’s Office,” she said. “It makes my day better and it makes their day better. I definitely like being around them.”
Dfc. Parks agreed with her.
“It’s definitely the best assignment here,” he said. “Because you get the opportunity to work with the kids, the families, school staff and the entire community.”