The new man in charge of the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office school resource officer program has the wisdom of his predecessor close at hand.
After several years rotating among the elementary, middle and high schools, this fall Sgt. Nathan Harris stepped up to fill the shoes of the retiring Cpl. Rob Sarnoski. In his new role Harris coordinates the efforts of a seven-member team of SROs, including at least one officer at all six schools.
Sarnoski’s retirement was short-lived. He is back with the sheriff’s office on a part-time basis, working with school officials on plans and policies as they refine their efforts to keep educators and children safe. With an office at the schools’ bus garage, he continues as chairman of the county’s Safe Schools Task Force, launched after the Parkland school shooting in Florida in 2018.
Harris had an easy transition into his new position, after years of interacting with other resource officers and school administrators.
“The communication is very good among all of us,” he said. “We’re always talking, sharing tidbits. Something that one of the other schools might see is going to end up here [and vice versa].”
As an example of the sort of trend he has to stay aware of, he cited a recent challenge posted on the social media app TikTok. The challenge is for kids to vandalize school bathrooms and post their handiwork on the app.
School resource officers are much more than law enforcement officers. They are informal counselors to students who may be reluctant to approach mental health or crisis counselors. The officers also provide structured education about gangs, drugs and other issues to students through the Learn and Win program, especially at the elementary and middle school levels.
That multifaceted approach is misunderstood by some in school districts around the country where there has been a recent drive to remove SROs from schools, Sarnoski said.
“Most districts that I’m familiar with see them as role models and counselors,” he said. “There are some perceptions that they’re just there to arrest people, and that’s never been the case here. I’d call it a knee-jerk decision to remove them from schools, and some folks are bringing them back. But every community needs to figure out how to keep their schools safe.
“We know that kids are going to make dumb decisions. And when we deal with those issues, I tell them I’m doing what I do because I care about them, and we want them to learn to make better choices in the future.”
Keeping an eye on mischief or possible criminal behavior in the schools doesn’t just fall to the sheriff’s office. The school department employs a security officer whose role is somewhat similar, but who dresses in regular street clothes and enforces school policies as needed. Currently Roger Stewart, the varsity wrestling coach, serves in that role at the high school.
“There’s nothing secretive about it, it’s very overt,” said Sarnoski. “It’s just an extra set of eyes, and another chance for kids and adults to build relationships.”
The coronavirus pandemic made things a little slower for the SROs during the last school year, with fewer students in the buildings on any given day. Now everyone is back, but still masked. That can be tough when the officers rely a great deal on kids’ expressions to judge whether something is wrong.
“You really can’t see anything besides kids’ eyes anymore,” Harris said. “It’s definitely a challenge. But being in the schools, you build such a rapport with the kids, so you can kind of gain their baseline — how they make eye contact, whether they say good morning or how are you doing. That way, when they don’t say anything or kind of shrug you off, then you know something’s going on.”
Harris has always liked the daytime schedule of a school resource officer, as opposed to the night shifts he sometimes has when he’s on patrol in the community in the summertime. But what he likes most about his job is that he gets to see the best and worst in students. On patrol, many times he only sees people “at their lowest.”
“It’s rewarding to see the change the students can make,” he said. “Especially since I’ve seen these kids since they were in the sixth grade. There’s one young man who always comes in to talk to me. He made me very proud a couple weeks ago when he started having to make decisions on his own. I see that with a lot of students.”