MERCED — For almost 20 years, Merced's high schools have had a full-time police officer on campus. The school resource officer program gets high praise from administrators, principals, police chiefs and the students themselves.
Merced Union High School District trustees recently renewed the school resource officer agreement with the Merced Police Department for another year; the district pays $91,600 to have officers at Merced, Golden Valley and El Capitan high schools along with the East Campus Educational Center.
Merced Police Chief Norm Andrade called the SRO program essential and a necessity these days.
"Society's becoming rougher and rougher," Andrade said. "It's a very important program for the safety of our kids. (Officers) head off volatile situations and prevent a lot of situations that could have gotten out of hand."
Officer Perry Flowers, in his second year as the SRO at Golden Valley High School, said it's a much different role than being a regular patrol officer. The relationships he develops with students are much more personal.
Students feel safer
Merced High School junior Josh Damijo, 16, said he is grateful to officer Ryan King for getting him a new bicycle after his previous one was stolen. King and other officers chipped in to buy the devastated student a bicycle and helmet and get the bike licensed.
"I have known (King) for quite a while," Damijo said. "I feel very safe at high school and I'm glad he's here."
John Olson, Merced High principal, said King is deeply involved with campus life.
"He does such a great job developing relationships with kids," Olson said. "He's a great guy and goes out of his way to make freshmen feel welcome. The kids like him; he's always out at lunch and break time with students."
King said he has positive interaction with students. He said officers are approachable and learn to interact with students.
Scott Scambray, district superintendent, said they never wanted to lose the SROs on campus; keeping the SROs is a high priority and it was a matter of working out financial arrangements.
The SRO idea was first developed in 1994 by then-Police Chief Pat Lunney. Andrade said at first the school district was not keen about having uniformed officers on campus; that attitude has since been completely reversed.
Tony Lopez, 17, is a senior at Merced High; he said King is a role model for him and he's contemplating going into law enforcement.
"He has always been there for me," Lopez said. "He makes the campus a lot safer for us. He is someone I can look up to."
Ariajh Hicks, 14, is a Merced High sophomore and praises the SRO program.
"He is very helpful and nice," Hicks said. "He's always there when we need him and he is someone to talk to. It makes me feel safe."
Andrade said SROs aren't heavy-handed; they are not on campus to be disciplinarians. Many times they can bring calm to an otherwise volatile situation.
"They play a big role and are busy all day long," Andrade said. "Their role is to help educate kids on a variety of laws, good behavior and character and being good citizens. While they are not trained counselors, they have a knowledge of life. The officers do a great job."
Officer Ben Dalia has been an SRO for six years. He divides him time between the East Campus Educational Center and the new El Capitan High School.
"It's a great position," Dalia said. "It's rewarding working with students at East Campus Educational Center and seeing them turn their lives around after making bad choices. It's a different job than being on the street."
Andrade said officers need a good understanding on what allied agencies are available to help students with problems. The SROs work hand-in-hand with principals and may speak in certain classrooms. They also help with periodic safety training.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.