Originally created 05/29/03

Police try to keep edge



AIKEN - In an era of concern about crime and violence, school law enforcement officers are challenged with the daily dilemma between exerting authority and keeping an open relationship with the pupils they are protecting.

"We are police officers and we have to make sure we prosecute and handle investigations correctly when any crime is committed, but you've also got to build a rapport with the kids and the staff," said Sgt. Chris Funk, the school resource officer at Langley-Bath-Clearwater Middle School.

That isn't an easy balancing act, said North Augusta Public Safety Chief Lee Wetherington. He said the officers run the risk of becoming so sociable with pupils and teachers that their sharp professional instincts become blunted when a situation arises.

"Sometimes you're too close to the problem to see it with full perspective," Chief Wetherington said.

In late March, the mother of a student of North Augusta High School choir director Kevin Creel complained to school authorities that the teacher sent her daughter messages over the Internet that she deemed inappropriate.

As the school resource officer started investigating the complaint, he failed to file a required incident report until 41 days later, Chief Wetherington said.

The officer was not disciplined, said Chief Wetherington, who assumed full responsibility for the lapse. Instead, he was reminded to follow police procedure. No criminal charges were filed against Mr. Creel.

Resource officers are a "presence" in schools that can deter criminal activity, Sgt. Funk said. But there's a catch, Chief Wetherington said.

"If the officer goes out there and he's heavy-handed with the students and he's walking the halls with a big stick, they're going to shy away from him," he said.

Officers will eat lunch and chat with pupils, but an open ear should not be mistaken for a shut mouth, said David Turno, an Aiken Department of Public Safety spokesman.

"You could have a date rape-type incident ... or abuse," he said. "By law, the officer is required to report that."

Two Georgia counties take a different approach.

In Richmond County, 35 fully certified school officers are employed by the Board of Education's Department of Public Safety and can make arrests for misdemeanors, but not felony offenses, said school spokeswoman Mechelle Jordan.

In Columbia County, school safety officers have limited arrest powers and mainly provide muscle to break up fights and back teachers and administrators, said Charles Nagle, the associate superintendent. Crime investigations are handled by local law enforcement agencies.

Reach Sara Bancroft at (803) 279-6895 or sara.bancroft@augustachronicle.com.