LINCOLN — “We love you, Brian.”
A teenage girl's voice rises above the chatter and shuffle in a hallway at Lincoln East High School.
Police officer Brian Ward, 44, hears that a lot lately. After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., police officers assigned to schools are feeling the love — even from the Oval Office.
President Barack Obama wants to put officers like Ward in more of the nation's schools.
Area superintendents say they are interested, and some would apply for the federal grants Obama is offering. There is no doubt among school officials that school resource officers make schools safer, deterring crime and establishing positive relationships with students that pay off in numerous ways. Nearly all large high schools have them.
But there are questions. For instance, stationing a school resource officer in every public school in Nebraska would cost more than $50 million a year. Putting one in every public elementary would cost more than $29 million annually.
Who picks up the cost when the grants inevitably run out? Are cops really needed in elementary schools? How about middle schools? Would that stop tragedies like Newtown?
The answers aren't easy to come by. The role of resource officers is sometimes misunderstood.
“The SRO is not there to be an armed guard eight and a half hours a day,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
Canady supports Obama's call to put more of them in schools — as long as it's for the right reasons.
Obama ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to give preference this year to applications for school resource officers in awarding hiring grants. He also made available $150 million for school districts and law enforcement agencies to hire resource officers, school psychologists, social workers and counselors.
Putting police officers in schools dates to the 1950s. School resource officers, based on a philosophy of community policing, came later. Officers, it was thought, should step out of the cruiser and into the community.
By the mid-1990s, resource officers were being assigned to metro Omaha high schools and middle schools.
Demand for them sharply increased after the April 20, 1999, shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, amid copycat threats and fear that similar tragedies could occur.
Before Columbine, six Omaha-area high schools had resource officers. By the end of 1999, that doubled to 12 high schools.
A key lesson from Columbine was that officers can't waste precious time waiting for backup. Since then, resource officers have been trained and authorized to go after an active shooter.
Their daily duties, however, reflect a mix of law enforcement, teaching and counseling. They are far more likely to foil an attack by sniffing it out in the planning stages than by shooting the intruder in the act.
But Ward said he is “absolutely” prepared to shoot an intruder. Every officer knows that's a possibility when he takes the oath.
Ward feels responsible for protecting the 1,470 kids at East High who are “innocents,” he said.
He tells students, “If something's happening, you're going to be running out, and I'm going to be running in.”
Although Sandy Hook left the nation feeling helpless and vulnerable, active-shooter situations in schools are rare.
Ward said he has uncovered plans that had the potential for causing harm. Every week, he said, he pulls a student into his office who wrote or said something of concern. The public usually hears only about the cases that are close to execution, he said.
“You never hear about the ones that almost got there,” he said.
The No. 1 way guns are discovered in schools is through the resource officer, said Ken Trump, a national school safety consultant.
However, people mistakenly believe the SRO is “a hired gun” to protect the school, he said. Anthony Foster, a school resource officer at Papillion-La Vista South High School, wears a pistol on his hip, but he gets more done just being hip.
That means keeping up with social media like Twitter and Facebook. He's more likely to investigate theft of a student's cellphone, jump-start a dead car battery, foil an ill-advised senior prank or teach a drug-education class than confront a bad guy with a gun.
Foster, 34, however, said he's ready for action should the worst come to pass.
Foster figures that he would have about two minutes to face a gunman alone before backup officers arrived. The school has 1,655 students.
“Personally, I feel I'm responsible for these kids, and I'm going to do whatever it takes,” he said.
It's not clear if officers assigned to elementary schools could accomplish the same relationship-building or even keep busy. Enrollments run as low as 100 or 200 children in some grade schools.
Ron Diimig, executive director of student and family services in the Council Bluffs Community Schools, said there's been no push in his district, from principals or the community, to place officers at elementary schools.
Council Bluffs has officers at the high schools and middle schools.
“Our elementary buildings know they can pick up the phone and call their nearest secondary building” if they need an officer, Diimig said.
Or they can call 911 or make use of Police Area Resource officers, who are assigned to groups of elementary buildings, he said.
Keith Lutz, superintendent of the Millard Public Schools, said he would like to put officers in more middle schools. Millard has them in about half its middle schools.
But with 14,000 school districts nationwide and only $150 million in federal funding, Lutz figures the federal money won't go very far.
Steve Baker, superintendent of the Elkhorn Public Schools, said the president's proposal isn't bad but said he doubts that the money will trickle down to Elkhorn.
Elkhorn has officers at both high schools and a part-time officer at the middle school level.
Baker estimated that adding enough officers to cover all locations, including elementary schools, the district headquarters and a separate early childhood center, would cost an additional $750,000. And that's assuming the city and county would have the additional officer — and cars — to contract.
“I'm not putting a price tag on student safety, but I'm being realistic,” he said.
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