County cuts police presence at 13 schools in District 51

Jeremy Balleweg jokes with students who fill the halls at Central High School during lunch hour. Balleweg, a Mesa County sheriff’s deputy, is the only resource officer left at District 51 schools in unincorporated areas of Mesa County because of budget cuts by the Sheriff’s Department. What students at other schools are missing, said Sheriff Stan Hilkey, is a good first impression of police.

By 11:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, Jeremy Balleweg served as a police officer, counselor, mediator, friend and jokester.

At the beginning of the day, Balleweg, a Mesa County deputy sheriff who is the school resource officer at Central High School, gives a potentially suicidal student a ride to the West Slope Mental Health Stabilization Center for an evaluation. A couple hours later, he meets with two feuding families to try to smooth things over. He later offers advice over the phone to a parent whose child has been harassed.

Strolling down a hallway, Balleweg slaps hands with a student who tells the officer he’s taking his driver’s permit test later that afternoon. Wandering through the library, he checks up on a boy whose bicycle recently was stolen. Standing inside the school’s main entrance, he needles one girl about her travails as a new driver — “What was it, three accidents in a week?” — and listens to another describe how a group of boys called her “bad racial names.”

“You didn’t fight with them, did you?” Balleweg asks, knowing that the taunting has prompted her to engage in physical confrontations before. He assures her he’ll talk to the boys.

The nature of his job requires Balleweg to be a jack-of-all- trades, a person upon whom staff can rely to perform myriad tasks, and for students a security blanket, the person to whom students can confide.

But that blanket no longer covers as much of School District 51 schools as it used to.

Mesa County’s steep budget cuts have left Balleweg as the only school resource officer patrolling schools in unincorporated areas of the county. Forced to slash $2 million in spending next year, the Sheriff’s Department eliminated the positions of three officers at Grand Mesa, Mount Garfield and Redlands middle schools, which also covered the 10 elementary schools that feed into those middle schools. That has left more than a quarter of the 22,000 students in District 51 without a badge in their hallways, cafeterias or bus pickup areas, a presence that has grown in importance since the Columbine High School shootings 11 years ago.

The effects are far-reaching. In immediate terms, 13 of the district’s 34 elementary and middle schools no longer boast a regularly stationed officer who can deter crime and other misbehavior. Balleweg said some principals have told him they already have seen an increase in fights, bullying and drug activity since the officers were pulled out of the schools this fall. Law enforcement officers can’t respond to a call for help at the schools as quickly as they used to.

Long term, should the reduction in officers become permanent, the greater consequence could be the absence of a range of benefits that can’t be measured in statistics or charts, officials say.

“The piece I think that parents and teachers and kids are going to miss is this relationship-building where you get this opportunity to make a first impression on youth about what being a police officer is about, about doing the right thing, about making the right decision,” Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey said. “It’s an investment in developing a person that you may not realize for years to come. For me, it’s a very difficult thing to have to eliminate.”

Program cut before

School resource officers have been roaming campuses in the Grand Valley since the late 1970s, when two sheriff’s deputies and one Grand Junction police officer tried to cover all of District 51, according to district safety coordinator Tim Leon.

The Sheriff’s Department temporarily removed its officers after the oil-shale bust in the early 1980s, then expanded into the middle schools in the 1990s.

Today, the Grand Junction Police Department has one full-time officer assigned to Grand Junction High School, two who work in the city’s four middle schools and the private schools, and one who splits his time between the high school and all of the city’s elementary schools. The Fruita Police Department has two officers assigned to cover the city’s five schools. The Palisade Police Department doesn’t employ a school resource officer. The high school there was not covered by the Sheriff’s Department even before its cutbacks.

Hilkey said he decided to maintain the officer at Central High School. But even with Balleweg’s best efforts, he can only act in largely reactive role, with a heavy focus on traditional policing, because of the size of the school and the number of calls.

Elsewhere, for at least the next year, officers will miss the opportunity to regularly interact with children during some of their most formative years.

“That’s the biggest issue you’re going to be missing, is that prevention and preparation for high school,” said Kevin Quinn, a spokesman for the Minnesota-based National Association of School Resource Officers and an officer at a 3,300-student high school in Chandler, Ariz. “Once you get to high school, a lot of them can already be set in their ways.”

Asked about the effects of losing their officers, the principals at Grand Mesa, Mount Garfield and Redlands middle schools gave a variety of answers. But they all agreed on one: They miss the calming, positive influence the officer had on parents and students alike.

“If we have, heaven forbid, a situation where we have to call in a police officer, it’s going to be because of a negative situation. When (the officer) was here in the school on a day-to-day basis, even if we had a negative situation, it wasn’t a threat (to students),” Redlands principal Kelly Reed said. “We could work from a proactive, positive-solution foundation rather than, ‘Well, we’re going to deal with a negative situation, and we’re going to come down with a stick.’

“While discipline remains constant here, that positive aspect has been lost. There’s no way to replace that without another officer being in the building.”

Officers maintain as much contact with students as teachers and principals. They’re outside the school to greet students when buses and bleary-eyed parents roll up, mingling with them in the hallways, classrooms, lunchrooms and playgrounds throughout the day and back outside to send them home at the end of the day.

Who the bullies are

Each of the three middle school officers who were dropped from the program or transferred to other schools had patrolled their schools for at least three years.

That kind of longevity allowed them to form bonds with students — who may be more comfortable confiding in them than in a teacher or administrator — and become familiar with the student body and the various issues at the school.

That means if a fifth-grader approached an officer to complain about a sixth-grader harassing him on the playground, more likely than not, officers like Matt McChesney would know the identity of the bully, even if the fifth-grader didn’t.

“He really was amazing at working those kids, knowing people, remembering people,” Hilkey said of McChesney.

Denise Allison, who has a 12-year-old daughter, Ciara, at Mount Garfield and an 8-year-old son, Nick, at Rocky Mountain Elementary School, said she wishes McChesney was still working at the two schools. She said Ciara has been subjected to bullying in the past.

“It would definitely be an asset, given the peer pressure and all the changes this age group goes through,” Allison said.

Waiting to pick up his 11-year-old son, Tre, and Tre’s friend, 11-year-old Zac Kenward, John Nichols of Palisade sat in his truck and watched as middle-schoolers streamed out of Mount Garfield on a recent afternoon, an officer no longer there to direct traffic and watch for potential dangers. The vulnerability implicit in that scene worries Nichols.

“It does concern me because there’s no security,” he said. “Anybody could be in this parking lot right now.”

Balleweg estimates he spends 70 percent of his work time at Central, splitting the remaining 30 percent among Grand Mesa, Mount Garfield and Redlands middle schools, depending upon calls for assistance from those schools. But a part-time presence at a school is a far cry from an administrator being able to yell down the hallway to an officer for help with an out-of-control child, or getting help interpreting a court order dictating who can and can’t have contact with a student, or help providing advice to an upset parent.

Principals say they and their staff are tacking onto their full workloads many of the duties performed by the officers. But they acknowledge they simply can’t replicate some of that work or get access to some of the same information.

Reed noted that Deputy Phil Hicks, who worked at Redlands for nearly 10 years, was adept at filling in the administration about incidents at other schools and crime trends occurring in the surrounding neighborhood. That information could then be passed along to teachers and parents.

“We simply don’t have the pipeline we did before,” Reed said.

What’s next

District 51 and local law-enforcement agencies have begun discussing how they might fill the void left by the officers. Leon said there has been some preliminary talk of providing security either with district staff or through a private company, although he questioned whether the district could afford to contract with an outside firm, given its own budget deficiencies.

Leon said officials are exploring the possibility of forming a school-resource officer task force that would combine all officers into one cross-jurisdictional unit and assign them to schools throughout District 51, ensuring that every school would be covered to some degree by an officer. He said he believes the task force is the most reasonable alternative.

District administrators and police plan to have an option in place by the start of the 2011–12 school year.

School principals say they hope they’re able to reacquire resource officers down the road. But even if county revenues rebound, Hilkey is skeptical about whether he’ll be able to reinstate officers to all schools because it’s hard to quantify their work.

“It’s difficult to measure prevention efforts. If you interrupt an act just before it happens, that’s the only way you get to measure it,” he said. “Because it’s hard to quantify, my sense is if those positions are ever to come back to the county, it’s only going to be because the citizens demand it. Under the current environment in the county, even if our revenues go back up, we’re not getting everything back we got rid of.”


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