Investigators allowed to question students in "immediate danger"
By Nancy Lindsey
The Patrick County School Board voted unanimously Oct. 9 to approve an amended agreement between the school system and the Patrick County Sheriff's Office regulating the school resource officer program.
The agreement is basically the same as the one adopted several years ago, with one exception: it allows sheriff's office investigators, in conjunction with the commonwealth's attorney, to question a student without his or her parents present "when there is an imminent or immediate danger."
Sheriff Dan Smith said the change is needed to protect children in emergency circumstances when they are at immediate risk of "violent crimes" or harm from parents, guardians, or other family members.
In the past, a sheriff's office investigator could not speak to a child without the parents being present, Smith said, but in many cases the parents are the ones putting the child at risk.
On the recommendation of Commonwealth's Attorney Stephanie Vipperman, Smith met recently with Dr. William Sroufe, division superintendent, and Dean Gilbert, assistant superintendent, to consider amending the agreement.
The school officials agreed to the change, and the school board concurred.
"There's a difference between an SRO and an investigator," Gilbert said. The change specifies that an investigator is the officer who can speak privately with the student.
"This doesn't happen very often," he said, referring to investigators questioning students in school settings.
An agreement has been in effect since the school resource officer program was initiated several years ago, and the current version contains only minor changes other than the amendment regulating cases in which investigators question students, Gilbert and Smith said.
The agreement "governs the creation and operation of a school resource officer program at the seven schools in Patrick County," according to the document.
The Patrick County Sheriff's Office agrees to assign one deputy sheriff as SRO at PCHS, one at Woolwine Elementary, one at Hardin Reynolds Memorial School, one at Blue Ridge Elementary, and shared deputies between Meadows of Dan Elementary and Patrick Springs Primary School "at no cost to the school board."
"The school board agrees, as its in-kind contribution, to provide the assigned officer access to office space, telephone and normal supplies needed to function as a school staff member," the agreement states. "The sheriff retains final authority relative to all employment matters."
The agreement states that "the primary purposes of the school resource officer program are to facilitate more positive contact between the law enforcement and youth to promote students' citizenship responsibilities.
"Activities that promote intervention, prevention and education will guide the operation of the school resource officer," the agreement states. "In addition, the school staff and students will be afforded the opportunity to take advantage of the wide range of experiences and education possessed by law enforcement officers."
A school resource officer has a wide range of duties and responsibilities, including teaching the Class Action, DARE and Eddie Eagle Gun Safety programs, mentoring QUEST students, assisting guidance with attendance problems, working with court services to help transition juvenile offenders, directing traffic, serving as a member of the school crisis team, helping conduct safety inspections, assisting with unannounced drug and weapons searches by the sheriff's office and administration, and about 20 other tasks.
An SRO is a deputy sheriff and employee of the sheriff's office, but is also required to work a yearly period of 180 days, like school employees, and to work the same hours and 40-hour workweek of the employees at the respective schools, the agreement states.