Robin Huebner reports: Some Fargo schools to start year without school resource officers
FARGO - Students and staff in Fargo’s three public middle schools won’t see their school resource officers as often as they’re used to when the new academic year starts Aug. 27.
A shortage of Fargo police officers has forced the department to temporarily shift those three school resource officers, or SROs, to patrol duty in neighborhoods around or near Ben Franklin, Carl Ben Eielson and Discovery schools.
The Police Department has also asked SROs at Fargo high schools to help out by spending some time in the middle schools.
“We hoped it didn’t have to come to this,” said Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel, “but it’s a logical solution to a temporary problem.”
The Police Department recently notified the school district of the change and the school district notified school principals.
Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Schatz said he’s been assured the district will get the services it needs to keep the schools safe and secure.
“This is not a change in philosophy about whether we should have resource officers at the middle schools,” Schatz said. “It’s temporary because of the officer shortage.”
The change will continue until the department can put more officers on the street.
In a police department with nearly 150 officers, Vettel said they’re about 18 people short right now.
“That’s a huge loss in number of personnel hours,” he said.
There are 10 openings in the Fargo police patrol division and two in the investigative division.
Some officers have left for other jobs, retirement, or to continue their education.
At least a half-dozen officers are working light duty only or are away from their jobs altogether due to work-related injuries, and military or medical leave.
Filling patrol vacancies takes time because of background and medical checks, followed by months-long training.
“Somebody can quit in two weeks, and it takes us a better part of nine months to replace them,” Vettel said.
He said the department has so far kept up with its primary job of responding to calls for service, many of which are emergencies.
But to keep it that way, they have to put the SROs on patrol, along with some officers who normally do traffic safety, including DUI enforcement.
The three resource officers will be asked to stop in daily to the schools when they can.
Vettel said school administrators see the value in the SROs and understand the police department’s situation.
“If we don’t have bodies to send on a full-time basis, at least we get them part-time coverage,” he said.
“Our kids will still be very safe at school,” said John Nelson, principal at Ben Franklin.
There are eight school resource officers in Fargo, with the schools and police department sharing the cost. Five are stationed at Fargo’s high schools – North, South, Davies, Woodrow Wilson and Shanley.
The SROs have been in place since 2000, and, according to Schatz, were a result of the school shootings in Columbine, Colo., in 1999.
The Fargo middle school SROs at Discovery, Ben Franklin and Carl Ben Eielson were added for the 2002-03 school year.
The resource officers spend some time monitoring traffic around schools and in high school parking lots, but for much of their day they work on building trust and relationships with students, by educating them in the classroom or visiting with them in the hallways or lunchroom.
“They’re not just a cop at the front door,” Schatz said.
Schatz has told school principals to let him know right away if they find themselves shorthanded because of the change.
For example, if extra people are needed to monitor hallways, cafeterias or bathrooms, Schatz will put other campus safety staff in those locations.
Parents hope the middle school resource officers can be fully restored soon.
“I like that they show their faces,” said Amy Sjurseth, the incoming Discovery school PTA president.
“Having them there is such a great bridge between the students and police force,” said Chris Graf, who has an incoming eighth-grader at Discovery.
Graf said the officers are particularly valuable in helping kids and parents deal with social media problems, especially cyber-bullying.
She wonders if students will know where to go if faced with those issues early on in the school year.
Vettel said he hopes some of the middle school SROs can be back as early as October, when several new police officers complete their training.
Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll contributed to this report.