Special Report: School Safety

School Resource Officers are first line of defense

Security just one of many roles assigned to police in schools today

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Westerville police officer Aaron Dickison patrols a 5-acre area packed with about 1,500 people.

As a School Resource Officer, he acts as patrolman, counselor, safety educator, first responder and investigator at Westerville North High School.

"This is my city, and I'm the police officer here," Dickison said. "I do all the detective work and the community service and the education."

Dickison, like other school resource officers across the country, is on the front line of defense in school security.

As Dickison walks Westerville North's many hallways, he's quick to point out his security concerns, as well as point out the changes he's made to keep students and staff safer since becoming North's School Resource Officer last year.

"One of my biggest problems on a daily basis is that you have 30 doors that you can walk into and out of," Dickison said. "It's way too many to police for one person."

Nonetheless, Dickison's day generally begins with making rounds through the school, checking that each door is, in fact, secure.

The outside locks on the doors have been covered so they can only be unlocked from the inside. Dickison and school officials have talked about going to an electronic swipe system to further secure the doors.

In the lunch room, Dickison worked with the city's fire marshal to gate off some of the seven entrances during lunch periods to give staff less to patrol.

Tables were moved closer together to discourage fighting in open spaces, and more teachers were assigned to monitor student lunches this year, Dickison said.

Dickison monitors the halls to make sure students are in class where they ought to be, and he looks into tips from students about potential crimes.

"If I don't allow kids to wander the halls, I don't give them time to create a problem," Dickison said. "We work very hard to put out that fire before we have a situation in the schools."

With Dickison's efforts, there has been a 48.75 percent decrease in crime in the school since last year, Dickison said, though he acknowledged that the job hasn't been without its challenges.

Dickison is in his seventh year with Westerville police. His first five were spent on third-shift patrol, and he said it was a major shift in mentality when he began working at Westerville North last year.

"Last year, I came in here with the mentality of being a street cop, and I had to take a step back," Dickison said. "On the street, I didn't want anyone behind me, I didn't shake anyone's hand, and I wasn't very friendly."

Dickison said he made inroads by learning to create a sense of camaraderie with the students.

He tries to regularly stop by classrooms that he often has to respond to for disciplinary reasons, such as the classroom for students with behavioral disabilities, to spend time with the students casually.

He presents programs to different classrooms to provide safety education but also to make his face familiar to all of North's students.

"This year is much easier because I've built the relationships in the hallways, with the teachers," Dickison said.

Even with the strides Dickison has made in his time at North, he's constantly working with the school's leadership to further increase safety at the school.

The schools constantly are updating their safety plans, Dickison said, and like all Westerville resource officers, Dickison is required to create an initiative each year aimed at reducing school violence.

Starting this month, Dickison is working with North's teachers and administrators to launch an initiative to reduce students' "screen time" with social media, television and violent video games, which is linked to lower test scores and higher instances of school violence.

"We're going to try to detox students from so much screen time, violence that they're seeing elsewhere," Dickison said.

Working with students is not something Dickison ever saw himself doing, he said. He applied to be a School Resource Officer after he began working with the Westerville Division of Police's Explorer program for high-school students.

Dickison said that while a large part of his job is about the technicalities of school security -- checking doorways, responding to crimes within the school, working with students in diversion programs -- he's learned the role he can play in helping students stay in class and out of trouble.

Last May, Dickison personally handed diplomas to three students at graduation at their requests.

"I would never have thought a kid would want a police officer to hand them their diploma," Dickison said.

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