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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Squad cars at schools a sign of relief, not crime

Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on Sunday, September 20, 2009

At a recent social event, an acquaintance of mine told me she would not send her children to an east side school (that shall remain nameless) because of its crime problem. Knowing a little about the subject matter, I was confident the school she identified didn’t have any more challenges than the other schools in the city so it prompted me to inquire about the origin of her information. Her answer: “Because there is always a squad car parked in front of the school.”

Quite frankly, I can see how many citizens might surmise that a squad car parked at an educational institution may be an obvious identifier to high crime or other problems. As logical as that observation may be, it is wrong.

Nearly every middle school and high school in Aurora has a School Resource Officer (SRO) assigned. (As a matter of fact, Aurora Police was one of the first departments in the State to assign SRO’s.) While an SRO is responsible for anything police-related that transpires within the institution, they play a far more important role within the schools.

As some kids reach middle school and high school age, their perception of the police becomes adversarial (especially for those students who are inclined to test the boundaries). These students then tend to mistrust and create distance from the police. School Resource Officers reverse the distance and trust issues because for many students, the only police officer they know is the one who works in their school. Therefore, they become more inclined to accept guidance and redirection from them.

The SRO’s serve as extensions of the school staff and work very closely with the administration and teachers to ensure each child a safe environment in which to learn. The SRO’s handle mediation among students before they escalate into criminal activity. They are often alerted to tensions among students, and because they have developed a rapport with those involved, the situation can be diffused.

Police officers assigned to schools can be seen as an extension of the community oriented policing philosophy. They are there to bridge the gap between the students and the police and their taking the time to build relationships means a better quality of life for everyone in the institution. However, their purpose runs deeper. According to school violence expert Lt. Col. David Grossman, there has not been a school shooting where a police officer was present. In the Columbine school shooting, the assigned police officer left the premises and the assailants executed their carefully planned rampage. The other schools that suffered such tragedies did not have a police officer assigned.

Like all police officers, SRO’s are trained in “active assailant” which means that if a threat presents itself within a school, they move toward the threat to eliminate it. While optimally, the active assailant team consists of four officers that work strategically as a team to directly address a threat (such as a student with a gun), an officer already inside the school can act singularly to prevent the shooter from killing or injuring more people. Waiting for officers to arrive can mean crucial time is lost resulting in many more casualties.

In the wake of the school shootings across the country, many School Resource Officers believe they have played an integral role in the prevention of violence through their intelligence gathering, interaction with students, and by their mere presence.

There are some representatives of academia that believe a police officer in their school brings with them an image of crime and negativity. Judging from my acquaintance’s negative perception of the squad car out front of the school, there is obviously some merit to this belief. With enough education and dialogue, perhaps we can begin to alter our perceptions and change our paradigms so that the presence of the police in our schools brings a sense of relief rather than a fear of crime.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Texting While Driving - Appeared in the Sun Times Beacon News on September 6, 2009

I was on my way home from a Cubs game last weekend when I witnessed a car accident. I happened to look over at a vehicle in the adjacent lane as it was about to slam into the vehicle that was stopped in traffic. I cannot estimate the precise speed of the driver that caused the crash but he was going fast enough to have completely crushed the front end of his car. As I played the incident back in my head, my recollection actually registered a few milliseconds before he struck the other vehicle. In the film reel of my consciousness, I saw the man holding his cell phone in his hand and giving it his full attention as the explosion of metal on metal caused everyone in my car to gasp.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in that crash. Whether you subscribe to luck or a guardian angel as the reason the drivers walked away unscathed is of little importance. The more pressing issue as you can most likely infer is the fact that the accident was a direct result of the driver’s focus being on his cell phone rather than on the road in front of him. I’ve been paying close attention to the Illinois House Bill 71 that was approved by the House and Senate in May of 2009 and now sits on the Governor’s desk waiting to be signed. Effective January 1, 2010, the law will prohibit a person from using an electronic communication device to compose, send, or read an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle. One might think that the topic interests me because of my profession and the responsibility of enforcement that befalls officers when a new law is enacted. Despite the logic, you would be wrong. I am intrigued by the topic because I am helplessly and hopelessly addicted to my cell phone. I am guilty of dialing while driving, talking while driving, and I have even been known to (gasp) text while driving. If I know I’m going to be stuck at a stoplight for two minutes, I can get through about four e-mails of average length on my shiny iPhone. I welcome a delay at the train tracks because that means Facebook and Twitter can get some attention while the box-cars fluidly float by. I am not proud of this addiction and my confession is more of a step to publicly denounce my behavior than a means to preach about the dangers of this habit.

After witnessing that accident, I feel as though discussions in the media about cell phone use and driving are stalking me. When I pick up a newspaper or channel surf, reports of the dangers of texting while driving taunt me with statistics that cite cell phones as the rising cause of injury accidents. It is as though the universe is conspiring to take over my subconscious by tuning into only that channel.

Well universe, message received. I knew that my simple recognition of the fact that texting while driving is considered just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol would be enough to alter my behavior. Besides, I’m a very disciplined person by nature and I’m not one to allow a vice to overpower me.

And then it happened. Ding. A text message came through on my phone while I was driving down the street.

“No biggie. I’ll just check it when I reach my destination” I thought.

I looked down at the phone sitting in the cup-holder with the text message alert nagging at me.

“I’m sure it’s nothing pressing - - just a meaningless message from a friend meant to amuse or delight” my inner voice was saying.

I gripped the steering wheel tighter with both hands so as not to reach for the phone. Then I had an idea. I could read the text message quickly while barely taking my eyes off of the road. Yes, that is what I would do I decided. I picked up the cell phone and read the message which ended up being a bad idea because the urge to respond was overwhelming. Dare the sender of the text think me rude for not answering? I succumbed at the next stoplight conceding that this addiction would render greater restraint than I originally thought.

I am happy to report that I am slowly conquering this weakness but it is not out of sheer discipline as I had predicted. Instead, I must turn the ringer on silent and strategically place the phone into my glove box where I cannot see it or hear it thereby taking away the temptation to connect with the outside world. I can’t wait until January of 2010 to break this habit. Your life and mine depend on it.