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In wake of tragedy, resource officers becoming integral part of school districts

| Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Police officers throughout the state of Pennsylvania gathered at Bethel Park High School on Jan. 30 for school resource officer training. Randy Jarosz | For The South Hills Record
Keystone Oaks School District resource officer Aaron Vanatta trains police officers at Bethel Park High School to be school resource officers. Randy Jarosz | For The South Hills Record
Brentwood School District resource officer Joe Kozarian addresses police officers during school resource officer training at Bethel Park High School. Randy Jarosz | For The South Hills Record
Brentwood School District resource officer Joe Kozarian. Randy Jarosz | For The South Hills Record
Brentwood School District resource officer Joe Kozarian. Randy Jarosz | For The South Hills Record

A year ago, some school resource officers in Pennsylvania feared losing their jobs to state funding cuts.

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December reversed that trend. Districts nationwide are looking at ways to boost security — and that includes adding school resource officers.

“It just took a completely different turn. Everybody wants a class,” said Joseph Kozarian, Brentwood Borough School District director of security and facilities and the Region 3 director for the National Association of School Resource Officers, or NASRO. He oversees operations in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware.

In Pennsylvania and nationwide, demand for NASRO's officer training increased 300 percent since the Sandy Hook shooting, Kozarian said. The association anticipates schools across the country will add 1,000 officers to the 9,000 on duty by the end of this year.

Typically, training happens in summer, but the Connecticut shooting prompted officials to schedule classes in January and February. Kozarian led a 40-hour “basic training” for 16 officers at Bethel Park High School. Elsewhere, advanced and “active shooter” classes are scheduled.

“This is just the first of many in the next six months,” said Kozarian.

The classes teach officers how to deal with situations inside a school, organizers said.

“This is a completely different approach to how to do our jobs. We're always police, but here we're working with kids all of the time,” said Bethel Park school police officer Jim Modrak, a school resource officer since 2002.

The role of a school resource officer is threefold: they serve as police, provide law-related education and counsel students.

During training, these certified police officers learn how to be an effective presenter; how to deal with adolescence and emotions, substance abuse and dysfunctional families; laws that affect schools; and crisis prevention and crisis response, Kozarian said.

“You're closing the barrier between law enforcement and children. It's really giving them insight as to how the education system works,” Kozarian said.

Collier officers Bill Oslick and Steve Oberle participated in a class before becoming full-time resource officers for Chartiers Valley schools.

“It gives us a lot more perspective,” Oberle said.

Officials intended to add resource officers to three Chartiers Valley schools for several years, and the shooting expedited it, Oberle said.

Networking and learning how to interact with students was vital, said Oslick, who shadowed a resource officer in North Allegheny School District.

In Brentwood, which instituted school resource officers years ago, their presence has helped to reduce student vandalism, smoking and drug use, Kozarian said.

Though the trend began in the 1970s, Pennsylvania has lagged behind many states in implementing school police, he said.

“I haven't seen anything that I think is a better defense out there,” Kozarian said.

He's hopeful that tight budgets won't affect the program or keep schools from adding police.

“We have to protect the most important thing out there, and that's our children,” Kozarian said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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