Cops in schools offer more than peace of mind
At first blush, Officer Nan Tritt looks like any other cop. She wears a badge and a gun, and the heft of a bulletproof vest shows under her uniform.
She drives a police car, carries a radio, and is ready to risk her life protecting the public, but that’s about where the similarities end. As a school resource officer at the alternative school in Jackson County, she primarily serves as a confidant, a shoulder to cry on, and a trusted coach when life throws kids a curveball.
“Sometimes I think the public sees us as standing at the door ready to defend the school against an intruder. But I am not that. I am a counselor,” Tritt said. “I am their friend. I am someone they can talk to when things are going the wrong direction.”
In the wake of the Connecticut school shooting late last year, school systems across the mountains have been asking county leaders for extra money to hire more school resource officers. To help bolster that case in Jackson County, Tritt appeared before county commissioners this week and offered evidence of a different sort — the role she plays as a navigator to get kids the help they need.
She shared a small sample of the heartbreaking home life some of her students deal with. There’s no food to eat. The power had been cut off so they can’t shower before coming to school. Their dad got arrested. And, thanks to the rapport Tritt has developed with students after five years on the job, they confide in her.
“This is my passion. These kids are like my children. I love these children,” Tritt said. “I am not a security guard. I am much more.”
Jackson County school leaders and the sheriff’s office have asked for $176,000 a year to hire four additional school resource officers in Jackson County. The county’s three high schools already have school resource officers, but its four K-8 schools don’t.
In addition to $176,000 annually for salary and benefits, it would cost the county $225,000 the first year to outfit each of the four additional officers with equipment and a patrol car — for a total budget increase of $400,000 in the coming fiscal year.
County commissioners have not endorsed the proposal, however. Based on a preliminary budget, the county will only fund one of the four new officers the schools have asked for.
For now, the county sees merit in placing a school resource officer at Smokey Mountain Elementary, a K-8 school in Whittier, primarily due to its more remote location. If a problem arose at the school, it could take 15 minutes for a deputy to get there from Sylva after being dispatched.
But like Tritt, Superintendent Michael Murray said the real value of a school resource officer isn’t just the security measure they offer. Murray lamented that the national debate has been focused on giving teachers guns and arming schools to defend themselves.
“That is missing the point. We can all hire security guards and put them out front, but it’s the relationship with children. We want that piece — not just people with guns,” Murray said.
That said, there is merit to school resource officers from a safety standpoint.
“I’m not going to say a person with a gun isn’t a deterrent,” Murray said.
“These kids have a right to come to school and be protected,” Tritt added. “It is our job as school resource officers to make sure they are safe.”
Tritt’s presence has indeed created a safer environment for kids at her school, but mostly by squelching problems among the student body itself — not from an outside threat.
“When I first started, I had fights every day. I had to lock the school down on several occasions for violence. Now I am pleased to say I have one fight a year,” Tritt said.
Tritt helps students get the help they need, often by taking them to see the school social worker. But sometimes it is as simple as letting them get food to take home from a food locker in the library that’s stocked for that very reason.
County Commissioner Doug Cody likened Tritt’s role to that of a liaison that can help students get the assistance they need.
“I let them know ‘Somebody is on your side and going to look out for you,’” Tritt said. “In return I don’t have the fights and the disrespect.”