It's been about three months since K-12 schools in Minnesota went on hiatus due to COVID-19 concerns.
But that hasn't stopped three School Resource Officers (SRO's) from continuing to connect with and support students within St. Louis County Schools, a rural northeastern Minnesota school district.
“There were some parents who reached out to me about their son who was turning eleven,” said Pat Olson, one of the SRO's who serve on the campuses of Cherry, Northeast Range, North Woods, South Ridge, and Tower-Soudan School. “I had built a special relationship with him. His parents thought it would be cool if we could patrol down their driveway. It ended up not just me, but seven Sheriff's squads got to parade down his driveway and he got to meet our K-9.”
Brock Kick and John Barrett are the other SRO's. All three are St. Louis County Sheriff's Department deputies.
Even though the end of the school year was lost, the three SRO's didn't lose their connections to students.
They've remained in touch with students via email, video, in-school Zoom meetings, and occasionally as students bicycle or walk, said Kick.
“I sent emails to kids and they were so excited,” said Kick. “I even did some book reading on video and sent them to teachers to send to the kids.”
Kick also sent messages of “#wemissyou” to students.
The SRO's say being in schools to aid students is highly rewarding.
“It's about building relationships with the kids,” said Olson. “It's about that positive relationship with law enforcement. My primary goal is to work with all kids, not just the easy kids.”
The SRO's desire, says Kick, is to help students.
“Our goal is to be there for them to help them through wherever they are at,” said Kick. “They might be having a tough time, but when you stand at the entry way and they come up to you and give you knuckles or a high five, even for that moment, seeing those results are huge.”
School districts across the state are still formulating plans on how instruction will look during the 2020-2021 school year. The potential options of full in-school instruction, online distance learning, or a hybrid system, are being weighed by all districts.
At St. Louis County Schools, a decision is expected by July 27, said Superintendent Reggie Engebritson.
Engebritson says SRO's will continue to play an important role in district schools.
“I think first and foremost it's having another adult in the building to build relationships with kids,” said Engebritson. “I hope it gives kids a positive view of law enforcement as someone they can go to for help. Also, we're a rural district and when we do have an issue in a school, we have them there in the school.”
In addition to SRO's, St. Louis County Schools is hiring three social workers as another way to assist students, said Engebritson.
A survey of district staff determined that the need for social workers within district schools, is a priority, said Engebritson.
The social workers begin this school year at the district's three largest campuses, Cherry, North Woods and South Ridge. In the future, the district is looking to hire social workers at the smaller Northeast Range and Tower-Soudan schools, she said.
“We want to be able to help with mental health concerns,” said Engebritson. “It's another effort to make our team stronger.”
At more than 4,000 square-miles, St. Louis County Schools is the largest district geographically in the state, stretching from the Canadian border to near Duluth.
Even though its a large area, some of the SRO's are already known by parents and students.
“I've been working in this area (North Woods) for 20 years, so I know a lot of the families,” said Barrett, in his first year as an SRO. “It's been kind of neat to come into the school and work with the students. If I run into kids now when I'm out working, I stop to talk with them and try to encourage them.”
The SRO's, said Engebritson, support students, have helped create school safety programs, and have a vast knowledge of community resources that are beneficial to students, staff and administration.
“They're another community resource for us and they can help us in reaching out to other community resources that we may not be aware of,” said Engebritson. “They're just a great addition to the buildings.”
Maintaining connections with students has been challenging during the past few months, said Kick.
However, as plans for the new school year unfold, Kick says the SRO's will adjust to whatever instructional method is finalized.
“My goal and the goal of SRO's are to mentor the youth, to be there day-to-day to help them wherever they are at, and to show them what we are like as human beings,” said Kick. “I work hard to show them I'm a human being and a mentor. Being an SRO is a calling – it's probably very similar to being a teacher. The relationships we build with the kids will help them throughout their lives.”