Probation officers shifted from schools

dyawger@mercedsunstarSeptember 15, 2013 

Julie Horal’s presence is missed at Merced High School.

Horal, a deputy Merced County probation officer, spent three years at the West Olive Avenue campus and was an integral part of school life. She often would attend extracurricular activities after regular hours.

Now Horal and five other probation officers no longer have offices at Merced, Atwater and Livingston high schools and their presence there is less frequent, due to a shift in tasks and failure to reach a financial agreement last summer.

Scott Scambray, Merced Union High School District superintendent, said the county Probation Department proposed charging the district $130,000 to have officers based on campuses but district trustees weren’t in favor of that move.

Scott Ball, chief probation officer, said probation officers now are based at the department and are focusing their services on the high-risk juvenile population rather than students in general.

Merced High School Principal John Olson said Horal’s change in assignment is a huge loss to the school and has not gone unnoticed. “She (Horal) was incredible,” Olson said. “She took care of her job but was so visible and available. Students saw her as a friendly, caring and giving law enforcement officer.”

Ball said his office restructured the general supervision unit that covers Merced County. The six officers now average 53 cases each. He said reduced caseloads as well as a focus on risk and need through a new validated assessment procedure is in line with evidence-based practices used by probation.

Butch Seifert, Merced High’s associate principal for student services, echoes Olson’s thoughts about Horal’s reassignment. “It’s unfortunate for our students that Julie Horal isn’t here,” Seifert said. “She was a wonderful role model for all our students, and went above and beyond the scope of her regular duties. Out of genuine appreciation for students, she developed a connection with them. She’s missed.”

Joel Daffron, supervising probation officer, said probation officers still are going out to school sites but not reporting there regularly. Through their valirisk-assessment tool, officers are identifying students with higher risk and tailoring special programs for them.

However, Daffron said school sites are a very valuable resource for probation officers and the collaboration between school officials and officers is valued. He has been a probation officer for seven years.

Seifert said he has seen Horal only three or four times since school started last month. He said the relationships she built with students are an unseen benefit; the rapport she built with students went a long ways. Ball isn’t upset the school district wouldn’t pay to base probation officers on campus.

“If the school districts could afford to contract for our services, they would do so,” Ball said. “If we could afford to donate officers to school sites, we would. I respect the decision of the district to choose to contract for traditional law enforcement services rather than probation and have no ill will for their respective decisions.”

Ball said probation officers still frequent the schools and collaborate with staff and school resource officers. He said his officers now have more time for their intended duties, including motivational interviewing, referral to social and mental health services, home visits, home searches, drug testing and arrests when necessary.

Last January, the six “general supervision” officers were assigned to high schools operated by the MUHSD and the Merced County Office of Education. These six officers averaged more than 70 junveile probation cases each of varying risk levels, Ball said.

“They also were tasked with assisting campuses with security and addressing issues with non-probation clientele,” Ball said. “Additionally, by focusing more on their actual caseloads, deputy probation officers were able to identify those cases appropriate for dismissal. This resulted in a total juvenile population reduction department-wide from 937 to 771.”

With the changes this fall, Ball said his officers are more proactive with the minors ordered by the court to receive the department’s services. A ward of the court can remain under the department’s jurisdiction until age 21; however, cases typically are dismissed once all of the individualized case plan goals are completed by the minor.

Last May, Ball said the probation department needed to shift its focus to evidence-based practices rather than strictly school-based supervision. If the schools were going to use probation officers in the same manner as school resource officers, they should be required to pay for them, he added.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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