On May 17, the Atascadero Unified School District board approved a two-year agreement to bring an Atascadero Police Department officer onto district campuses to work full time as a school resource officer (SRO).
The incoming SRO will replace the probation officer provided to the district by the SLO County Sherriff’s Office. The program will be in place at the start of the 2016-2017 school year.
“Over the last few years, we talked about what a positive impact it would be to have one of our local officers doing that [job],” said E.J. Rossi, district assistant superintendent. “The benefits we see are this is somebody in our community who knows our students and families.”
Though officials say the SRO program is not a reaction to any troubling trends in the city’s youth, Atascadero schools have been hit hard recently by multiple “high profile” criminal incidents.
In September, San Gabriel Elementary School was shut down for two weeks after a threat was made on campus. Last spring, Atascadero High School went on lockdown after someone reported a gunshot on campus. In November, San Benito Elementary went on lockdown after a man fleeing from a traffic stop high on drugs ran through campus.
Handling those crises strengthened the relationship between the district and the Atascadero Police Department and paved the way for introducing the SRO program, Police Chief Jerel Haley said.
“There were periods of time over the past year where we were on the phone with the school district on a daily basis,” Haley said. “A relationship developed between our two entities. It was just a no-brainer for both of us.”
Haley said that the SRO hasn’t been named yet, but he will appoint a veteran officer currently working on the police force. The SRO will have a presence on all school campuses, but will spend the majority of his or her time at the high schools.
The SRO will handle law enforcement matters on campus relating to drugs, weapons, and violence, in addition to implementing restorative programs like “teen court” as a method to discipline students committing lower level crimes, such as vandalism, without sending them into the criminal justice system.
“Our desire is to not strictly be a law enforcement entity that has a heavy hand at the schools,” Haley said. “We want to be proactive and do everything we can to keep kids from getting in trouble in the first place and keep them from going down a path that leads them to the criminal justice system.”
Haley doesn’t think that the transition to an SRO will be a big deal for Atascadero students. He said the SRO will not be in full uniform while at work.
“It really is not that shocking to the kids,” Haley said. “Once they get to know the SRO, they actually look forward to it.”