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Hoping to teach respect

School resource officers deal with small problems and try to prevent big ones.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001

TAMPA -- If Walker Middle School were Dodge City, Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Rick Cervis would be its Matt Dillon.

"I'm a sheriff of my own little town," said Cervis, resource officer at the 1,500-student school since it opened in 1997.

Sickles High School resource officer Steve Lewis agrees. "I'm the chief of 3,100 students, faculty and staff," Lewis said. "It's a mini-city."

And like the sheriff in the Gunsmoke television series, school resource officers encounter every aspect of school life, from petty arguments to felony crimes.

What began two decades ago as a public relations tool for law enforcement is now a fixture in middle and high schools. When Alonso High School opens in the fall, its school resource officer, or SRO, will bring the systemwide total to 56. Each officer walks a fine line between "Officer Friendly" and "John Law."

"I tell my kids, "You're always going to respect my badge, my gun and my uniform,' " said Deputy Clemente Fiol, SRO at Gaither High School. "My job in this school is to get you to respect the man in this uniform just as much."

"Respect" is a touchstone word for Fiol, 39, who dreamed of becoming a law officer since an SRO took him under his wing in junior high school. All he asks of students at Gaither is that they respect one another. When that happens, his work day is a pretty quiet one.

Fiol shows his concern for students by getting involved in their lives. On the wall of his spartan office, he keeps a large calendar listing students' birthdays. "That way, when they come to school, I can tell them happy birthday," Fiol said. A small gesture, to be sure, but an important one to young people. "Today is Richard's birthday," Fiol said. "He's one of my office assistants. He's got cerebral palsy, but he's a great kid. He really picks you up."

Small things count to Fiol, who understands how the right guidance at the right time can change the direction of a young life. "When I was at Adams Junior High, my parents divorced," Fiol said. "The SRO there, Jim Depuy, brought me into the Explorers group. You never forget things like that. Because they're not little, they're big."

The school resource officer program in Hillsborough began in 1977 as a federally funded pilot program to get officers into schools so they might develop better relationships with young people, School Board spokesman Mark Hart said.

Social unrest during the 1960s and 1970s meant hard times for law enforcement. The SRO program was an attempt to improve officers' image among the country's youth. But over time, especially in this era of students killing students, SROs are seen as a necessary hedge against school violence.

Sheriff's deputies are assigned to schools in the county, and Tampa Police Department officers handle schools that fall within city limits. The respective agencies hire officers, and the School Board pays half of each salary.

SROs come to work every day with guns on their belts. "Our policy is to wear the uniform and the same standard equipment as a deputy on the street," said Sgt. Rodney Harkins, who oversees SROs in western Hillsborough. "Initially, (the gun) may put people off, but with the climate we have nationwide with school violence, people have come to accept it. The deputy is the person on scene to take action if it's necessary."

SROs don't work alone, though. They establish student Crime Watch programs in which students patrol the campus.

At Walker, Cervis has signed up about 300 students in his Crime Watch, the largest in the state. He deploys seven to 10 students each period of the day.

"This way, I've got eyes and ears in every corner of the school," Cervis said. "Nothing moves on this campus that I don't know about."

The big attraction for the students is that they get to carry two-way radios to keep in contact with Cervis and one another. The school's PTSA raised the money to purchase the 15 radios for about $420 apiece.

"They love having those radios in their hands," Cervis said. "You take the radio away and the job gets a lot less interesting."

Cervis relies on a strong rapport with his students. He works every lunch session from 11 a.m to 2 p.m. because "that's the only time I get to hang out with the good kids. You can watch kids and know what's going on. The biggest problem in middle school is the "he said, she said' stuff. If a kid hears something from another kid, it's like reading it in the newspaper."

Cervis tries to smooth the petty squabbles, which wins him allies. "If you don't take care of their little problems, they're not going to help you with the big problems," said Cervis, 46, who has been an SRO for 10 years.

For example, Cervis said, several years ago a student tried to bring a gun to school. "I knew about it before the kid got off the bus," he said. "Middle school kids can't bring something to school and not show it to somebody. I have a 100 percent clearance rate."

Situations can become more serious, and more secretive, in high school. No SRO had a bigger mess on his hands this year than Sickles High School's Lewis. In March, a series of rumors ran rampant through the school -- talk of guns, explosions and death, and a series of false bomb threats.

"I interviewed at least 300 kids during that period," said Lewis, 30, now in his second year as an SRO. "I had them lined up out the door."

But the trail led to nothing more than the ether of hot air. "It was just kids talking," Lewis said. "But that was a stressful week, I tell you."

A regular day in the office is filled with more mundane duties. This past Tuesday morning, he filed a report for a 16-year-old student whose car had been "keyed" in the parking lot. Whoever did it went to the trouble of spelling out "b----" in ruined paint.

Lewis told her he would talk to the student the girl suspected to see what he could find out.

Next came a 17-year-old girl a teacher had caught with cigarettes.

The girl, smiling, insisted she had not been smoking. But Lewis told her that because she is not yet 18, just having the smokes meant a $25 citation and attendance at a two-hour smoking class.

"I was actually planning on quitting," the girl told him.

"Well, this'll help," Lewis said. "I hope this is the last smoking citation I ever have to give you."

"He's my favorite cop guy," the girl said.

"See, I can give a kid a smoking citation and they still love me," Lewis said.

-- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at (813) 226-3464.

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