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Placing police officers in Berkeley County high schools has had 'positive' effect, officials say

April 18, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- The school year isn't over, but the assistant superintendent of Berkeley County Schools said having a police officer assigned to each of the county's three high schools has been a successful initiative that officials are budgeting for next year.

"It's really been a positive program for us," said Rick Deuell, who supervises the school district's human resources department.

At a news conference Thursday, Deuell said teachers and staff remain responsible for telling students they shouldn't be running in the halls and giving other routine behavioral guidance, but acknowledged that high school staff were "very relieved" by the presence of Berkeley County Sheriff's Department and Martinsburg Police Department officers.

Launched last year with $150,000 for three officers, training and equipment, the school district's partnership with the law enforcement agencies replaced private security officers, who didn't have the power to make arrests, which is considered a greater deterrent to trouble.

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A preliminary study at Hedgesville and Musselman high schools shows a decrease of at least 60 percent in incidents from the fall to the spring semester, Berkeley County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Kenneth M. "Kenny" Lemaster said.

"It's a very proactive program, as you can see by the reduction," he said.

A semester-by-semester comparison of activities at Martinsburg High School wasn't immediately available, but Martinsburg Police Department Chief T.C. "Ted" Anderson and Patrolman J.R. Butcher, Martinsburg's assigned certified resource officer, reported similar results.

"I think in the long run, it reduces crime. ... Just developing the relationships is going to have a positive effect," Anderson said.

Butcher said he can't walk through Martinsburg Mall without bumping into someone he has met through his position, and said a lot of the students want him to come to their graduation.

Butcher said an average of two sets of parents a day were stopping by the city's high school to talk about their children.

As of April 15, 40 percent of the incidents at Martinsburg that have involved Butcher or Patrolman Chris Williamson, who has filled in for Butcher while he was on medical leave, were related to tobacco use (12 percent), truancy (11 percent), battery or fights (10 percent) or trespassing (7 percent), according to the police department's preliminary figures. Another 5 percent involved the MySpace Internet Web site, Butcher said.

Students can be fined for tobacco use on school property and also can be ordered to complete community service, according to state law.

"The amount of smoking taking place now in our schools is down significantly," Deuell said.

Though Sheriff W. Randy Smith has not permanently assigned officers to Hedgesville and Musselman high schools, Lemaster said Sheriff's Deputies Calvin Wilmer and Thomas Carroll have been primarily handling the schools' safety patrol duties.

"Having the officers (there) puts them in quick access to other schools," Lemaster said. "We're not there to police the kids, ... to subject the kids to a police state. It's for their protection."

Unless the school district receives grant funding, school administrators are not financially able to expand the program to middle schools, something that has been discussed, Deuell said.

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