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School resource officers in high demand in Pennsylvania, nation

| Sunday, July 6, 2014, 10:33 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
School resource officers Tom Liberty, left, Freedom Area School District, and David Wargo, Burgettstown Area School District, conduct a crime prevention assessment of the Brentwood Middle/High School complex on July 2, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
School resource officers David Wargo, middle, Burgettstown Area School District, and Brad Morgan, St. Marys Area School District, conduct a crime prevention assessment of the Brentwood Middle/High School complex on July 2, 2014.

Brentwood police Officer Joe Kozarian leans back with a laser pointer, wriggling the sharp red light onto windows shown in a photo of a sprawling Georgia high school.

“You see the columns? The clear line of sight between where the woods start and school property begins? If you've never looked around your own school, you better start now,” said Kozarian, 47.

Before school shootings in Newtown, Conn., Kozarian couldn't round out a 15-person school resource officer training class. Now, he fills more than 30 spots and has a waiting list every month.

“Think like a bad guy when you're walking around a school,” he told an advanced class at Brentwood High School last week. “What could you slip by the cameras? What are we doing wrong?”

Effective school resource officers balance happy, welcoming environments with safety-conscious procedures, Kozarian said. Metal keys are a security nightmare, he said. Keep shrubbery low. Maintain a clear view of the property's edge. Consolidate visitor parking away from the entrance. Security cameras help, but proper lighting and clear angles are crucial.

“It's a lot to take in if you're not used to it,” said Bill West, a Southern director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which sponsors the course.

“This summer and last, there was this huge surge,” he said. “It's been great for us. A properly selected and properly trained officer can do great things for a kid.”

In Pennsylvania and nationwide, demand for the association's officer training programs has increased 300 percent since 2012, said Kozarian, who oversees operations in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware.

Pennsylvania contributed mightily to that jump, Kozarian said. Gov. Tom Corbett announced $3.9 million in funding for school resource and police officers to 81 schools and municipalities in January, including nearly $350,000 in Allegheny County alone.

Brentwood school resource officers help families with troubled children, executing drug tests at parents' expense and training them how to properly search a child's room.

“We do, when we're asked,” said Brentwood Principal Jason Olexa. “It depends on the school, the district and the policy, but if you've got a kid who needs help, absolutely.”

Retired state Trooper Roger Szuminsky, 52, became a school resource officer at McGuffey School District in Washington County three years ago. He led four current and former officers through Brentwood High School, poking potential holes in the school's security plan.

“These doors here, they're bonded to the wall pretty well,” Szuminsky said, pointing to retractable metal gates barring access to gym restrooms.

“They aren't exactly flesh-friendly, are they?” said Brad Morgan, 56, of St. Mary's Area School District in Elk County. “A small kid could climb under.”

Szuminsky smiled. “Not a lot of those in a high school, though.”

In basic courses, Kozarian implores officers to adjust their mind-set. Counseling a student is dramatically different from dealing with a hardened criminal, he said.

“It takes a unique person to come from a street background and want to work with kids,” Kozarian said. “You have to be a pretty great, pretty patient guy.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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