A year ago, Westminster School Resource Officer Jason Stouffer might have been seen pulling up to the home of a wayward teenager who had decided he or she had better things to do than go to school.
To Stouffer, that was, and continues to be, some of his most important work.
“I like going to homes to visit,” Stouffer said, “to meet the parents and see the living conditions.”
These impromptu drop-in sessions often teach him more than absence reports and data. They can open the door to meaningful relationships and positive change.
A former gang unit officer, Stouffer knows how to communicate with youth, and as a School Resource Officer (SRO), he can do it in a nonthreatening way. In 2019, Stouffer became the city’s first full-time SRO.
Currently, with the pandemic and other issues such as staffing shortages, the 18-year Master Officer is often instead patrolling the streets of Westminster.
“I miss it,” he says of the regular interaction with students and school staff at the five campuses in Westminster to which he had been assigned.
Getting back on campus
Stouffer said Westminster Police Chief Darin Lenyi has been at work bringing in a new crop of officers as well as talking to school officials not only about getting Stouffer back on campus, but adding another SRO, possibly with county Gang Reduction and Intervention Partnership (GRIP) funds.
Stouffer would like to see more officers on campus, where they can be living examples.
For him, the personal interaction, the building of relationships forestalls later problems. When Stouffer becomes ally rather than adversary, everything changes. But those relationships take time and can only be done in person.
When a police officer becomes a part of the scenery in a school, Stouffer said, they will be seen less as a negative and more as a positive.
Then, if trouble breaks out, “They’ll think of us and start calling.”
That goes for parents, as well. Once they see the SRO as someone who can support them and to whom they can reach out for help, the dynamic changes.
“It bridges gaps,” Stouffer said.
School officials like Allie Bak, Assistant Principal at McGarvin Middle School, say having an officer on campus is a big benefit.
“Especially in the post-pandemic,” she said. “The kids need more mentors and more support.”
While she says it’s great that Stouffer is available via phone, you can’t replace face-to-face interaction.
McGarvin Middle School Principal Bill Gates says SROs “promote a positive school environment.”
On a recent sunny and unseasonably warm day at McGarvin Middle School, an eighth-grade gym class is about to be put through its paces, highlighted by a 300-meter sprint.
Gamely, Stouffer lines up at the start line.
A former Marine infantryman, Stouffer may once have thought nothing of a morning run with a rucksack.
Now, chasing gamboling 14-year-olds while toting 40 pounds of gear is a more serious undertaking. He crosses the line near the rear of the pack, and endears himself to students. The bond deepens when he starts passing out tickets for free Slurpees at 7-Eleven. The race serves to underscore Stouffer’s approach to the job.
“If kids see me as more vulnerable, they’ll see me as more approachable,” he says. “It becomes more personal.”
Being there in times of crisis
There is another vital part of the job apart from building relationships and possibly diverting kids from skipping school and helping them cut down on the usual poor decisions of adolescence. Public safety in schools remains job one.
Although the pandemic naturally stalled school shootings and violence, as students return to class, experts are bracing for a “return to normal,” or worse.
As kids have returned to school this year, they have carried with them a year of pandemic-induced anxiety, depression, stress, and isolation, not to mention pre-pandemic stressors.
Many cities that redirected safety resources away from schools during the pandemic have been slow to recover.
“Kids are walking into a system that has been massively weakened,” Ron Avi Astor, a school violence expert at UCLA, told Reuters. “We’re going to see a variety of different forms of gun violence and violence in general. We’re in a situation where things are going to get worse.”
According to a survey by Everytown for Gun Safety, between August 1 and December 31, 2021, there were “at least 136 instances of gunfire,” on school grounds. The shootings resulted in 26 deaths and 96 wounded. That was the highest number people shot in that five-month stretch since the organization began tracking in 2013.
When the Westminster SRO program was introduced in 2019, critical incidents on campus were an important part of the calculus.
“We wanted to have an officer at the schools where he can interact with the school staff as well as the students and actually help the students understand what to expect from us if a critical incident does occur,” Westminster Commander Kevin MacCormick told ABC7 News when the program was announced.
When on campus, Stouffer is able to keep staff sharp on emergency and lockdown protocols and drills.
In addition to his duties patrolling high school and middle school campuses, Stouffer can find himself involved in myriad projects from helping distribute meals, to community events and presentations.
“I could probably use, like, six more (school resource) officers,” Stouffer says.