BEAUFORT — There are now seven school resource officers working in county public schools this academic year, thanks to a state grant and county funds providing the most recent position.
In addition, county commissioners agreed this year to provide funds for a school intelligence liaison detective. That position is held by Lt. Michael Panzarella with the County Sheriff’s Office. He supervises SROs provided by the sheriff’s office and investigates any possible threats to school safety. His office is at Broad Creek Middle School, but he investigates incidents at all schools.
County commissioners, on Aug. 20, approved accepting a $33,333 state grant, and provided $22,778 in additional funds to add the seventh SRO position.
Deputy Matt Howell is the newest SRO, serving Down East Middle, Smyrna Elementary, Harkers Island Elementary and Atlantic Elementary schools.
His office is housed at Down East Middle, but Deputy Howell, who began his new post Aug. 27, said he plans to make his presence known at all Down East schools.
He’s no stranger to school hallways, as he is a former career and technical education teacher at West Carteret High School. He’s worked as a sheriff’s deputy for five years.
Deputy Howell said he was excited to get an SRO position because he sees it as a combination of education and law enforcement.
“I have the experience from both sides. Having been in the classroom, I understand what these teachers are going through,” Deputy Howell said as he patrolled the halls of Down East Middle School Aug. 29.
The other six SRO positions are held by Angela O’Neal, Beaufort Middle and Beaufort Elementary schools; Zack Leach, Bridges School; Fred Meadows, Croatan High School; Keith Moore, East Carteret High School; Franklin Rice, WCHS; and Jeremy Destefano, White Oak Elementary School.
In addition to SROs providing school safety, Carteret Community College security officer Rene Hester oversees the safety of students at the Marine Science and Technologies Early College High School, which is on the campus of CCC. She also continues her other duties with the CCC security team. The retired Morehead City police officer is not currently a certified SRO, which takes specialty training and certifications.
SROs wear many hats, from a law enforcement officer who prevents violence and handles crime-related issues, to a teacher who promotes positive behaviors through programs such as Drug Awareness Resistance Education.
According to Superintendent Mat Bottoms, they are an integral part of the schools they serve, building relationships and providing positive role models for students.
“The Carteret County Public School System receives outstanding support from all the law enforcement agencies in the county and that is greatly appreciated,” he said. “Officers from the sheriff’s office and from each municipality are in and out of our schools on a daily basis, building trust and establishing relationships with students and staff members.”
SROs in the county are funded in a variety of ways, including state grants, money from the county, individual municipalities and the county school system.
The sheriff’s office provides SROs for ECHS, CHS and Down East schools.
The Morehead City Police Department provides officers for WCHS and Bridges Alternative School, which is on the WCHS campus.
High school SROs also visit elementary and middle schools within their district.
The Beaufort Police Department provides an officer for Beaufort Middle and Beaufort Elementary schools, while the Cape Carteret Police Department provides an officer for White Oak Elementary School in partnership with other municipalities.
According to Sheriff Asa Buck, funding SROs is money well spent.
“SROs are very valuable in many ways,” he said in an email statement. “Having law enforcement officers present in our schools for security and safety reasons is important. In addition to that, these officers are able to make valuable connections with students in a personal, one-to-one relationship that goes beyond the typical law enforcement encounter.
“These personal connections establish trust and build relationships between the students and community and law enforcement. Our SROs teach our students many important things, including making good decisions. Often they are just someone for a student to talk to, and that is so important,” he concluded.
Beaufort Police Chief Paul Burdette agreed.
“This position allows our department to take a proactive step in guiding the direction of our young people’s lives. All too often we are called to react to adverse circumstances,” he said. “Making this commitment to provide a daily, positive presence opens up the lines of communication and understanding into what is impacting our children. Each interaction builds the trust and sets the example.”
MCPD Chief Bernette Morris, too, said officers provide an important service.
“SRO Franklin Rice and SRO Zach Leach are huge assets to this community and to the Carteret County public school system,” she said.
She added that both officers have attained advance law enforcement certificates, which require numerous hours and hard work. They also coach sports at WCHS and do a variety of other activities.
“They speak with all the community schools about student online behavior and usage of social media,” she continued. “They assist with school safety drills and safety assessments prior and during school to assure the safety of staff and students. Their passion to help this community and school system does not stop when school ends.”
Cape Carteret Police Chief William McKinney also said his department’s focus is keeping the children and staff of White Oak Elementary safe.
“As we all know there has been an escalation in violent crimes committed on campuses across America the past several years,” Chief McKinney said. “SRO Destefano is devoted to maintaining the safety of students and staff, thus fostering a safe learning environment for all.”
(Carteret County Schools Community Relations Director Tabbie Nance contributed to this article.)
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.