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SOL on SROs

One year after the Sandy Hook massacre, school resource officers remain scarce on Tucson campuses

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As a school resource officer at Amphitheater School District's Canyon del Oro High School, Dan Horetski has faced challenges ranging from breaking up fights to dealing with a homemade bomb.

But one of his most important jobs is establishing relationships with students. If he's successful in doing that, he's more likely to get tips from students about potential incidents, arrive on the scene quickly and prevent trouble before it happens.

In one case, a student told Horetski about a fight that was supposed to happen after school and he was able to prevent it. Another time, three students emailed Horetski a video of a fight while it was happening on campus.

"Are they going to send that tape to a patrol officer?" Horetski said. "No, they're not. They know who I am. They're familiar with me. They know me. They're willing to do that."

SROs such as Horetski work both in law enforcement and counseling. They deal with students who commit crimes and work with counselors to help students who are headed down the wrong path. And some—including Horetski—teach classes on forensics and other law enforcement topics.

SROs were a big priority in the wake of the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School just over a year ago. President Barack Obama called for more federal funding for SROs and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer promised to "expand state funding for these trained officers" in her State of the State speech last January. Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild has called SROs "a form of community policing" that should be encouraged.

The U.S. Justice Department made $45 million available last September through federal grants to fund more than 350 SRO positions across the country, but Arizona state lawmakers didn't come through with SRO funding in the state budget and the city can't afford to assign cops to campuses.

Before the Tucson Police Department ended its SRO program during a 2007 budget crisis, it had about 40 officers serving as SROs in Tucson schools, according to Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor, who said the decision to eliminate SROs came down to how to best prioritize the use of officers.

"These are positions that could have been on the streets taking calls for service as our calls for service started to increase," Villaseñor said. "That wasn't done lightly. But our first priority is when someone calls 911, that we have a cop available to send."

Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik, a Democrat representing Ward 6, said it could be a long time before funds become available for SROs because the city is dealing with a $13 million budget shortfall in the next fiscal year.

"It is strictly a funding issue," Kozachik said. "I'd love to hire SROs, but you know, when the cookie jar is empty ..."

Amphitheater High School Principal Jon Lansa said that he'd "be very open" to having SROs assigned to his campus. But unlike Canyon del Oro High, which is located in a more affluent area of the Amphitheater School District, Amphi High has no officers on campus.

"The situation literally comes down to money," Lansa said. "Oro Valley has enough resources in their police department where they can assign them to their schools."

An effort to dedicate state funding for SROs "fell by the wayside" in last year's budget negotiations, said state Rep. Bruce Wheeler, a Tucson Democrat. But he anticipates putting funding for SROs back on the agenda when the Legislature resumes work later this month.

State Rep. Ethan Orr, a Tucson Republican, said that while he supports funding for SROs, he's heard from educators that the officers are not a top priority. Orr said local school district superintendents tell him that they need more money for teacher salaries, supplies and other education expenses.

"It comes down to the point where, yes, this is important, but we also have to look at what else is important," Orr said. "We need to keep our students safe, but we also need to educate them."

Steve Hammons, the supervisor of the SRO program with the Oro Valley Police Department, said that SROs are at all of the school's sporting events and assemblies, working face to face with students. "Our chief and our police department have made this a priority every year."

Canyon del Oro's Horetski sees cuts to SRO programs as short-sighted.

"I certainly understand that everyone has budget cuts, but our students need to be protected, too," Horetski said. "The ability to protect our kids should always be a priority."

But TPD's Villaseñor predicted that the budget would remain too tight to reassign SROs to Tucson schools. "Every year since I've been chief, our budget has declined. We lose more money, we have to cut more services and we just cannot reconstitute the SRO program right now," he said. "Unless it gets funded separately by the city or in partnership with the school districts, or unless we find grant money, I see it as a long time coming. Because right now we're just going to be working on maintaining the services we have over the next couple of budget years, which are predicted to be extremely bad."

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