Payson Residents Fight For School Safety Program

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Arizona Legislators recently heard public comment on the continued necessity of the committee responsible for overseeing school resource officers, known informally as SROs.

"How many came from Payson?" one legislator asked the audience.

Twenty-three people raised their hands. They were parents, students, teachers and school administrators.

The School Safety Program funds the placement of police officers in public schools. SROs are on campus to give students a role model, increase safety, deliver law-related education, serve as a liaison for court-involved students and when problems arise, intervene.

"I came from a high school in Nebraska that had no resource officer and I have seen the significant, positive influence of the officers on campus," said Robert Hoyt, a teacher at Payson High School for 11 years. "As a parent, I have three children and I think it is imperative you leave these officers in the schools for security.

"They attend all the school ball games, dances and other functions, making parents feel at ease."

The $14.3 million School Safety Program is currently funded with $6.5 million from the state's general fund and $7.8 million from Proposition 301. The Department of Education is responsible for distribution of School Safety Program money that pays the salaries of 272 SROs in 278 schools representing 220,000 students.

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Rural Arizona was well-represented at a recent legislative hearing on the continuation of the school safety program's oversight committee. Nearly two dozen people from Payson and another eight from Globe were present. Pictured top to bottom, David Vaughn, Lauren Galhotra and Rachel DiFelice.

The legislative audit committee reported that elimination of the SSP Oversight Committee would mean a loss of leadership and vision and would hurt inter-agency cooperation.

The service agreement between Payson Unified School District, Payson Police Department and Gila County Probation Department for school resource/probation officer services was approved by the Oversight Committee at its Nov. 13 meeting.

Citizens from around the state spoke out specifically on how the program objectives are being met.

"Officer Emilio teaches us how to be peacemakers and handle problems with other students," said Kelsey Johnson, a fourth-grader at Copper Elementary in Globe.

"Officers are teaching us new things all the time," said Lauren Galhotra, now a seventh grader at RCMS.

"When I was in the fifth grade, Sgt. Donald Garvin, Steve Montgomery and David Vaughn came in and taught us about the legal system using Goldilocks and the Three Bears as the basis for a mock trial," Galhotra said.

Since adding an SRO, Clarkdale reports a 95 percent decrease in juveniles referred to the courts, according to SRO Robert Church.

Ronnie Collins from the Arizona Department of Education's safety prevention unit testified using a 2003 survey that 93 percent of students respect SROs and nearly half the students felt they could come to the SRO with a personal problem.

The idea that students have an adult they can trust is essential to the officer's ability to keep schools safe.

SROs have helped Payson Center for Success students make informed decisions, said principal Kathe Ketchem.

The ability to ask questions in a safe environment led one her students to report illegal drugs on campus. The resulting tip led to an arrest.

The aim of education is teach students the power of self-mastery, so they are never a slave to indulgence, Officer David Vaughn said.

"I hope you will take that to heart when you consider all that students are bombarded with every waking moment of their lives," Vaughn said.

"What is more important than the lives and safety of children?" said Rachel DiFelice, a seventh-grader at RCMS.

At the end of the hearing, the legislative committee voted to continue the school oversight safety committee. The recommendation will be drafted and presented in the upcoming legislative session for continued funding.

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