A true resource: Schools benefiting from new school resource officers
Combining the skills of someone who serves and protects with someone who has a desire to help youth was pretty much the exact job description Wadena Police Officer Nick Grabe was looking for.
"Being a cop or a teacher have been the only two jobs that I've ever considered," Grabe said.
Grabe has been with the Wadena Police Department for 13 years. He's known since a young age that he wanted to be in law enforcement. He's also been drawn to teaching and coaching youth. Getting hired on as the new school resource officer this fall, serving youth in the Wadena-Deer Creek School District, M State's Wadena campus and Freshwater Education seems to be a great fit for him. He's excited to build relationships in the schools in order to improve a certain stigma about law enforcement.
"Nobody's ever excited to see law enforcement," Grabe said. "If cops arrive, it's either cause you are the victim of a crime, suspect of a crime, there's a medical going on, a car accident, someone's getting pulled over. No one is usually excited to have police walk in the door."
"This gives me a chance to get that first interaction with them, that will be a positive interaction."
Grabe and other law enforcement officers likely often hear a parent cautioning their child to "be good or the policeman will take you to jail." The fact is, the police are not out to arrest 5-year-old children that don't listen to their parents. They have a goal of keeping peace.
"We want kids to come toward us when they're in crisis, not run from us," Grabe said.
But there's more than simple joking that officers like Grabe have to deal with. A social stigma about law enforcement has grown in recent years since officer involved shootings started showing up in the public eye more. Grabe looks to improve relations by building up relationships throughout all the schools he covers.
"I want to be a resource not just for the students but for the staff, too," Grabe said.
According to Wadena Police Chief Naomi Plautz, Grabe was the best one for the job for his ability to be able to talk and relate with anybody. Plautz said all candidates would have been good for the job, but Grabe excelled in conflict resolution.
"He's been our DARE officer and his decision to want to take on this position ... I was thrilled," Plautz said. Grabe will continue to be the DARE instructor, graduating about 500 students so far.
Grabe's involvement in DARE for the last six years gave him a leg up for knowing the students at the school already, in fact this year's graduating class includes his first year of DARE graduates. And it's that personal connection to the community that helps Grabe engage in more conversations. People are more comfortable telling him about something they've seen or are concerned about, because they see him on a daily basis.
Plautz has been hearing compliments from the community about having Grabe at the school. She expects the relationship between police and community will improve overall safety for the long term.
"When parents or teachers have an issue or concern ... maybe it's a little personal, they want that personal connection," Plautz said. "I know that will happen for Nick."
You'll see Grabe slapping high fives in the hallways, sitting down for a hot lunch with students or helping a student across the street. Even if he's not seen, at least his presence is now felt there.
Grabe heard that just being at the school his first week helped defuse an incident where two students were on the verge of fighting.
Grabe hits every site at least once a day, always changing up his schedule. He'll respond to the sites when called, often dropping in to different classrooms to share a safety message or answer questions. Being stationed out of the high school allows Grabe to be able to reach the high school, elementary and college in a moment's notice. While he'll be able to respond quickly to crisis, his attitude is that just being on site reduces the likelihood of crisis. Even if all he ever does is talk.
In his first week, Grabe noticed a student sitting by himself during lunch for a few days in a row. He sat down and started a conversation with the student. Simple as that.
"If nothing else he had someone to sit with for a day," Grabe said.
It might not be the kind of thing most people look to a police officer to do, but it may have been exactly what the student needed that day.
Verndale Police Chief Cory Carr has been serving as the SRO at the Verndale Public School this fall while continuing to serve the city. He will continue to fill that role until the city hires on another full-time officer, Verndale School Superintendent Paul Brownlow said. He believes that could happen as soon as mid-October.
Once that officer is hired, Carr is still expected to share the role of SRO at the school.
The current plan includes the school paying for 65 percent of the SRO, likely around $30,000-$35,000. That includes having an officer at the school during the student contact days as well as available for after school functions.
Brownlow said having an SRO at the school provides for an important presence that students can feel. It's not just a presence that helps avoid problems from occurring but it's a presence that students know they can go to if they need to share a safety concern. The Minnesota Department of Education announced this week schools that received funds for school safety infrastructure upgrades. That did not include staffing funds.
Brownlow said he hopes the Legislature recognizes the need for this resource as well and will allocate some funding to pay for a school resource officer in the future.