CHARLESTON, S.C. - Police officers on campus are helping address violence at Charleston-area schools, but some say their work after hours is just as important.
The school resource officer program began in 1999 after school crime reports showed enough violence to warrant more security and is having an effect, said Charleston County School District guidance counselor Candice Bates-Quinn. She said officers also are finding time outside the school day to connect with students.
Gary Zimmer, one of the first officers to begin working with students, said in his first year, he made 180 arrests that included arson, auto theft and attacks on teachers and students at Brentwood Middle School in North Charleston.
Law enforcement officers called Brentwood "Fight Club Middle School," he said, because "there would be so much action in there."
Zimmer began taking Brentwood kids to baseball and hockey games and slowly, students opened up to him. Their problems included poor neighborhoods, few positive role models and empty homes - things that make concentrating on school difficult.
When he moved to the Military Magnet Academy in 2001, Zimmer started teaching students law-related lessons when he discovered "if a child understands the law, he is less apt to break it."
Military Magnet students Cory Sanders, 15, and Christina Teseniar, 14, said their encounters with Zimmer are a nice change of pace.
Student Bernay McDaniel, 15, gets help from Zimmer, who has a degree in education, with math and English. "He was funny," she said. "He joked to get on my good side. He definitely made it easier."
Zimmer said he hopes he can be a positive influence.
"These kids face tough things every day," said Zimmer, whose activities outside of the schools are mostly an effort to keep kids busy and out of trouble. "You've got to find some way of working with them constantly."
School resource officer Harold Brown is now at Brentwood Middle. Last year, Brown and five other school resource officers took 85 students to a baseball game. "Most of the kids here have real bad home lives, and they're looking for attention," said Brown, a 42-year-old father.
Brenda Nelson, a coordinator for a federal program called Safe Schools/Healthy Students, said several initiatives and intervention programs include a mentoring program for students and a support program for parents.
"A major risk factor for students throughout the district may be coming from communities where students have been witnesses of violence in and out of the home," Nelson said.
"We want to show students there are other ways to resolve problems without the use of violence."