‘Protecting the youth’: Retiring school cop chief touts importance of resource officers

ST. GEORGE — At the start of the new school year, hundreds of students across Washington County are beginning classes. For many, the first staff member they encounter may not be a teacher or an administrator – it will likely be the school resource officer.

2020 file photo for illustrative purposes only of the entrance to Snow Canyon High School on May 7, 2020, St. George, Utah | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

A school resource officer (SRO) is a sworn law enforcement officer that is assigned to a particular school on a long-term basis and plays an integral role in ensuring the physical safety of a school building and all inside. While that is the first priority, their role on campus is varied and the scope of their duties often goes above and beyond safety and security.

These officers are often on the front lines and can generally be seen welcoming students to the school, counseling a student in crisis or even mentoring a student who has lost their way. School resource officers are also great educators and role models who are well trained to work within an education environment.

An effective SRO program is a collaborative effort between the officer, administrators, students and district staff. The partnership is critical to maintaining open communication, which also allows for rapid response to threats.

The position, with its genial-sounding name, is an unusual hybrid of counselor, educator and police officer, as opposed to having an armed security presence or scaring kids into behaving. Rather, they are an appreciated member of the administration who kids look to for advice, support, and safety.

In St. George, there are 12 student resource officers assigned to a dozen schools scattered throughout the city. Making sure everything runs smoothly fell on the shoulders of Lt. Ivor Fuller, a supervisor in the St. George Police Department’s special enforcement division — which includes school resource officers and bike patrol.

Fuller retired from the department this month, and Lt. Joseph Hartman, a veteran officer with a long career with the St. George Police Department, has been appointed to lead the SRO program and to coordinate and manage the school resource officers assigned to schools in St. George.

File photo of exterior of Dixie High School, St. George, Utah, June 16, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Fuller outlined the program and how the officers are selected and trained during a recent interview at the St. George Police Department and also discussed the important role these officers play. First and foremost, he said the role of the student resource officer is to ensure the safety and security of youth, which he said are the most precious and vulnerable within the community.

“The importance of protecting the youth cannot be overstated,” he said, adding they represent the future and help shape what a community will become.

To that end, having an SRO that is present and available to these students is critical, he said, so they can have a direct impact on the lives of the youth by leading by example.

Selecting the right officer for the job is the first critical step in terms of placement, he said, and any officer who wants to serve as an SRO must first put that request in writing. From there, they are put on a waiting list. Once a position opens up, the officer selected undergoes a training program that will help them work effectively in a school environment, which in many ways is much different than any other police assignment.

These school-based officers use that training and their law enforcement experience to train and educate staff members and teachers, and also assist in the development of safety plans. At the same time, they serve as a liaison between the schools and outside agencies.

In a file photo, St. George Police Lt. Ivor Fuller speaks at the St. George Animal Shelter, St. George, Utah, March 2, 2018 | Photo by Tanner Lund, St. George News

It all starts with the desire to serve as a school resource officer and everything else follows from there, Fuller said.

“These officers want to be a school resource officer and they are excited to work with the students and make a difference,” he said.

Many of these officers also become mentors to youth in schools and develop positive relationships with students and their families. When they notice a student who appears to be at risk, they can help guide them through challenges and be the stable advocate for those youth living without structure or stability in the home.

The positive relationships that are established and nurtured over time can also help change that adolescent’s overall view of law enforcement, which can continue for the rest of their life. Fuller said those relationships can extend beyond the school campus and even influence the outcome if the student should have an interaction with police away from campus.

For example, he said, there was an incident several months ago in which officers responded to a call involving a youth who was despondent and suicidal.

“This youth was in crisis and not threatening anyone else. Only themselves,” he said.

As it turned out, an officer who worked at one of the schools the year before responded and the two recognized each other. Since the SRO had built a relationship with the teen, there was a level of trust already established.

The officer was able to talk to the teen on a more personal level, as someone who had shown concern and caring while working at the school, and that bond helped to deescalate the situation, Fuller said. In the end, the teen was able to talk through the crisis, which enabled the officers to get the youth the help needed going forward.

File photo of Tonaquint Middle School, St. George, Utah, April 5, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

The other advantage is the officer can identify a need or problem area and then connect the student to much-needed resources – some of which the youth may not even be aware of.

“These officers can also connect the student with additional resources that can help them,” Fuller said.

There are also the safety benefits that go along with having an SRO working on campus. As studies have shown, all the security procedures in the world cannot replace the proactive intelligence an SRO can collect to stop attacks before they happen.

An SRO is assigned to a school on a full-time basis, made possible by the agreement between the Washington County School District and the various police departments where the district agrees to pay a portion of that officer’s salary.

Steve Dunham, communications director for the district, said it is money well spent.

“We talk about providing for school safety – and this is the number one thing we can do to ensure the safety of our students in the schools.”

Dunham went on to say that just as important is the positive impact these officers are having on the students as a whole, and for those students coming from other areas where they may have formed a negative view of law enforcement. In the end though, these officers “are the resource these kids can count on if they are having troubles and need someone to talk to,” he added.

File photo of St. George Police Lt. Ivor Fuller (center) at the grand reopening of the St. George Animal Shelter, St. George, Utah, June 21, 2014 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

He said working with Fuller over the years has been exceptional, and he has been there any time the district has needed him for anything.

Fuller has been the supervisor over the SRO program for the last five years, and during that time he has grown close to his officers, administrators and many of the students.

When asked what he would miss most about the job, Fuller said he would miss the relationships that have been established over the 20 or so years he has been with the department, including the 11 years he spent on the mountain bike patrol and the last five years overseeing the SRO program.

He also said he has built important relationships with many of the students at the various middle schools and high schools while overseeing the program, and the friendships he has formed with educators and administrators at the school and district level.

Fuller said he is looking forward to some much-needed family time and added a vacation was likely in his future – his very near future.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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