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Federal grant adding school resource officers in Phoenix

John Harpster, school resource officer at Altadena Middle School in Phoenix, is shown with Brandon McCombs, school resource officer at Sierra Linda High School. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Kirsten Kraklio)

John Harpster, school resource officer at Altadena Middle School in Phoenix, is shown with Brandon McCombs, school resource officer at Sierra Linda High School. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Kirsten Kraklio)

To Laura Packard, Officer Scott Freibaum’s presence at Shea Middle School means she can feel secure about sending her eighth-grade daughter to school.

“I think it’s great because as a parent I’m always worrying about my child’s safety when they’re not at home,” Packard said.

Freibaum, the school resource officer at Shea Middle School, is part of the Department of Justice-funded Community Oriented Policing Services, also known as COPS.

Last year, COPS awarded seven cities across the state over $5 million in grants, with Phoenix receiving $1.875 million, to provide more officers like Freibaum in schools.

Phoenix plans to use the funding to train 15 current officers to become school resource officers and hire new officers to fill their spots, said Sgt. Tommy Thompson, public information officer for the Phoenix Police Department.

Phoenix currently employs 75 school resource officers, Thompson said.

“I think the schools are very lucky,” Packard said. “Every parent can feel secure when they send their child to school.”

But to Thompson, school resource officers provide more than just physical security.

“As police officers, we’re reactive,” he said.

At schools, the officers work to prevent criminal behavior before it begins, he said.

Officer John Harpster, school resource officer at Altadena Middle School, said there are three components to his job: school safety, investigating criminal activity and teaching law-related education.

Harpster said it’s hard to calculate the benefits of a school resource officer on campus, though he said they are clear.

“You can’t quantify relationships. You can’t quantify the preventative aspect that kids are developing with a police officer,” he said.

Harpster said the program helps students understand the law better and also the personal side of police officers.

“Sometimes it’s just catching a football and throwing it back,” he said. “Some of these students don’t have that relationship with adults, and having it with a police officer is very powerful because they see us not as the bad guy anymore, they see us as approachable.”

Harpster said his vehicle parked in the front of the school has also provoked members of the community to call and ask for help or report suspicious behavior.

“It’s not just the schools, it’s the community around the school (that see the benefits),” he said.

Corey Ray, spokesman for the Department of Justice’s COPS office, said the program, now in its 20th year, has begun to see an increased demand for school resource officers.

Local law enforcement agencies apply for grants on behalf of schools. The local economy, crime rates and community policing plans are considered in deciding where grants go, Ray said.

The grant covers the cost for three years, and the police department is responsible for funding the fourth year.

Ray said his agency hopes police departments will continue the positions beyond the initial four years.

A number of groups, including the National PTA, have criticized armed school guards, saying that schools should remain completely gun-free. Advocacy groups also have complained that the number of arrests in schools has jumped because of the guards.

Ray acknowledged criticisms that placing armed police officers in schools results in more juvenile arrests but said discipline isn’t the program’s focus.

“They’re there for a number of other items like mentoring, counseling and teaching. Disciplining is far down the list,” he said.

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