Tensions over the presence of cops in St. Paul schools led to a recent rewrite of the annual contract guiding the deployment and activities of the nine school resource officers, or SROs, who serve the district.
The hope is that the officers can be more mentor, and less enforcer, when interacting with students, and a new requirement calls for the SROs to submit monthly reports documenting proactive work as well as any physical contact they've had with students.
This week, the public also was invited to "get to know" the SROs through the district's posting of interviews with the officers on its website (www.spps.org). The officers are shown wearing new light-blue polo shirts that help contribute to an "Officer Friendly" vibe.
"While I am all about enforcing laws and making sure people feel safe, I am NOT just the cop at the school," Cortez Hull, who is stationed at Highland Park High, says of his biggest challenge. "I am sometimes a counselor, teacher, therapist, coach, mentor, social worker, father figure and personal trainer."
Mike Tharalson, who has worked as Harding High's SRO for 10 years, cites the challenge of getting people to understand that officers have positive interactions with students on a daily basis.
Toy Vixayvong at Como Park High draws attention to the school's homeless students.
"They live with different friends that are able to take them in," he says. "They struggle financially out in the community. Finding ways to help these students is a struggle."
Vixayvong and Bill Kraus, who works now on a roving basis, also are reminders that the SROs are sworn officers who enforce laws and make arrests.
This summer, Vixayvong was honored as police officer of the year by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association in recognition of work in a previous assignment with the FBI Safe Streets Violent Crimes Initiative.
Kraus was the officer whose forceful arrest of a black teen at Central High for trespassing in May drew protests, and helped spur some of the contract changes. He is quoted saying he applied to be an SRO for family reasons, but discovered he really enjoyed working with students and staff, and has been "very successful building bridges with both."
Still, questions about SROs linger.
At a school board meeting this week, Ruby Sutton, one of two students seated with the board in a non-voting capacity, expressed concern that a school-climate report presented to board members made no mention of student interactions with SROs. Chairman Jon Schumacher noted then that such data now is being kept under the terms of the new contract.