Vermillion will not seek COPS grant; council votes 6-2 against application

Vermillion will not seek COPS grant; council votes 6-2 against application by M. Jill Sundstrom Despite the best efforts put forth by proponents, the Vermillion City Council defeated a motion to apply for a federal COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) grant to pay for a full-time school resource officer.

The 6-2 defeat came during the council�s regular July 6 meeting after a lengthy discussion by proponents and opponents of the issue.

The Vermillion School District already has a school resource officer, Theron Ahlers, who visits both middle and high schools four to five hours a week. Had the city applied for and received the COPS grant, another full-time officer would have been hired and paid for 100 percent with federal monies � up to $125,000 � over a three-year period.

�There has been quite a bit of discussion about putting an armed guard in the schools, but that was never our intention,� said Police Chief Bruce Plate. �The school resource officer is a resource for teachers, parents and students. He gives some classes about drug abuse prevention, health and various laws that affect students. He intervenes in problems that may arise at school. We look at this as interaction between the community and the police. And the program seems to have worked.�

Psychologist Matt Stricherz, a certified prevention specialist and certified chemical dependence counselor, presented statistics regarding teen alcohol and drug use according to the most recent American Drug and Alcohol Survey given to Vermillion students (1997-98). The results include 39 percent of Vermillion�s seventh- and eighth-graders have tried alcohol. Twenty-four percent of the same grade have tried cigarettes. Of the ninth- and tenth-graders surveyed, 73 percent had tried alcohol, while 57 percent have tried cigarettes and 31 percent have tried marijuana. The numbers are 79 percent, 54 percent and 25 percent for the same drugs, respectively, for 11th-graders. They rise to 85 percent, 62 percent and 38 percent, respectively, for 12th-graders.

In a report Stricherz prepared for the city council on the benefits of a school resource officer, he summarized that �inappropriate or violent behavior in schools in Vermillion is, in many ways, comparable to other school systems. Substance use by Vermillion adolescents is present and includes several important points to consider:

�Alcohol is the most commonly used substance by students. Marijuana is the next most commonly used substance by students. Alcohol and drugs are often ingested on the way to school. Disinhibition and the alteration of caution and judgement accompany substance use and are risk issues within the community. Substance use is present in surveyed students in the middle school through the high school.�

Stricherz also noted highlights of violence in Vermillion Public Schools in 1998-99, including:

? Students were relieved of their lunch money by peer and/or older students to avoid physical assault.

? Students were relieved of money to eliminate the threat of sexual assault against a family member.

? Student attack on administrator.

? Student removed from school and placed in a care facility due to threats of killing classmates.

? Student quit Vermillion Public Schools due to fear of violence by other students following threats of and actual physical violence.

? Student removed from school and placed in care facility due to threats of killing self with gun � student had gun at residence.

? Student assault on another student with fist and caused the victim to become unconscious.

�We do have some pretty drastic incidents taking place,� Stricherz said. �And the reason we look at these statistics is because these are precursors to uncivil behavior and the disinhibition that can cause a significant number of peer problems.�

Council member Frank Slagle, however, voiced his concern regarding several issues.

�I see some merits in the school resource officer, but I think we�ve developed a knee-jerk reaction to calling in the police whether or not it�s appropriate to do so.�

Slagle suggested that hiring more counselors in the school would be the answer to potential problems that may arise regarding drug and alcohol abuse, violence, harassment or suicide.

�To say that the Vermillion Police Department is not involved in a prevention program would be a gross injustice,� Stricherz said. �Law enforcement, and law-related counselors give straight-forward information to students and law-related educators work with all elements of the schools � from administration and staff to parents and students. It goes well beyond what a guidance counselor can do.�

�But I�m not convinced, based on your statistics that a full-time police officer would be all that effective,� Slagle said. �I�m concerned about the message we�re sending to our kids. The message is that we need armed guards for your protection. We need armed guards to keep you in line. I think there are other ways to deal with the problems ? I see the school resource officer as a police enforcer and I don�t like it.�

�The school resource officer is part of a community prevention system,� Stricherz said. �If the community has substance abuse and violence already present, it�s logical to utilize a program that�s been around for 40 some years.�

�Everything that has happened with the school resource officer at the high school has been positive,� said Vermillion High School Principal Doug Tuetken. �We look at it as if we can save one kid, then it�s worth it.�

Council member Barb Yelverton voiced her concern regarding the Vermillion School Board�s unwillingness to �put money into the program,� she said.

�After three years and if it�s successful, I would be the first to fight for additional funding for a school resource officer from the school board,� Tuetken said.

Beth Todd-Bazemore, a psychologist and parent, spoke to the council about the support group she is involved in with students.

�I have a 15-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter,� she said. �Both have had interaction with the school resource officer and a number of their friends have been experiencing difficulty with violence or the threat of violence in the community and school. Parents and the community need to do something to help them feel safe.�

In March, Todd-Bazemore started working with middle and high school age students in Vermillion.

�In talking with these kids we�re finding that they�re scared and threatened,� she said. �After hearing about their experiences, you�d think we were in a much larger city. But they have seen Officer Ahlers in school and these students have talked to him and have been responded to from someone who knows what it�s all about and a number of situations have been dealt with.

�As I hear the discussion tonight, I think the message we�re sending to our kids is that as adults we are here to listen, take their concerns seriously and want to do something to help them,� Todd-Bazemore added. �We don�t want to wait until something happens. The students have all seen what has happened as far as school violence is concerned in other parts of the country. And in every one of those situations they�ve all said they never thought it would happen there. In talking to our kids, they�re not as sure about that.

�We have to give those students someone to turn to and let them know as adults we are willing to hear them and take them seriously and do something about the problems,� she continued. �We have to be proactive.�

As an opponent, Joe Edelen doesn�t see that Vermillion has a problem that�s �significant enough to have an armed officer in the school,� he said. �I appreciate the statistics that were presented, but you can use statistics for anything that you want to say.�

Edelen also called the COPS grant program another �loss leader on the part of the federal government. Federal programs don�t hit the mark. I think problems are better solved on the local level.�

�I think an armed officer in the school is overkill,� added John Gors. �I don�t think law enforcement will gain the respect of kids by carrying a bigger club than they do. You�ll never win by beating kids down with intimidation and threats.�

Frank Pommersheim would like to see the current school resource officer program continue and group sessions such as Todd-Bazemore�s be expanded.

�The basis is already there and the grassroots can already solve the problem,� he said. �We don�t need the federal government to come in and screw it up.�

�We already have one of the most highly policed cities in the state,� Slagle added. �When is enough enough? When are we going to stop allowing headlines from outside of South Dakota influence our reactions?

�It seems we�re asking to put a square peg in a round hole to take a police officer and put him in a counseling position,� he added. �Is it not a misfit to have a law enforcement officer act as a counselor?�

In preparing to make a motion for a vote, Council Member Roger Kozak noted that �this is an application tonight. We still have to opportunity to say no. I think we should give it a chance and I make a motion to proceed with the application. I don�t want to say no before giving it a chance.�

Voting no were council members Dick Burbach, Joe Grause, Leo Powell, Slagle, Yelverton and Mayor Bill Radigan. Council members Gary Wright and Kozak voted yes. Council member Kevin Annis was absent.

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