A Closer Look: Law enforcement officers work to improve safety in West Virginia schools | #schoolsaftey

SOUTH CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) — Resource officers have become a staple at many schools throughout West Virginia. They are there not only to keep students safe but also in some cases to do outreach within the school. The job is a big responsibility. 

“We try and prepare as much as we can for what we pray just never happens,” said Lieutenant Robert Houck, Resource Officer at South Charleston High School. He has many years of experience as a police officer but only two months on the job working in the school. 

He is preparing for the start of a new semester. 

“We can you know monitor the lunchroom, some of the classrooms, all of the hallways, you know, the front of the building out there,” Houck explained as he clicked through a series of numerous surveillance cameras positioned throughout the school.  

Besides watching the cameras, Houck also walks the halls, making sure everyone is sticking with the school’s safety procedures.

“Just checking the doors, making sure our doors are locked, making sure teachers are leaving their doors shut which is part of our school safety protocol, doors are to be shut and locked at all times. Anything out of the ordinary, outside building perimeter checks, inside perimeter checks, just kind of doing what I can to make sure things are going good and safe here at the school,” Houch said. 

It is also an opportunity to build relationships with students by greeting them daily. 

“That is what I want them to see,” Houck said. “I’m a person just like you guys are. This is just my job. Sometimes they do ask, why are you here, and I explain I’m here to keep you guys safe but also if you need someone to talk to.”

Last year South Charleston High was one of a handful of schools across the state targeted by a hoax caller. The call stated there had been a shooting within the school. The call came from someone unaffiliated with the school and outside of the area.  Lt. Houck hadn’t yet started working at the school at the time.

“I was working at the office, the police station at the time and just the panic when the call came out over the radio,” he recalled about that day. 

Even though it ended up being nothing, it gave law enforcement and school districts a chance to see what they needed to work on.

“Just the mayhem that it caused and that was for a false alarm,” Houck said. “Had it been a real thing, what it would do to a community I can’t even imagine, what it would do to a school. But if things go bad, I would take it personally. This is my job to make things safe up here.”

Deputy Cabinet Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security Robert Cunningham said the state is currently using a $2-million grant to help add school safety officers to more West Virginia schools. Their role is slightly different than a Prevention Resource Officer or a School Resource Officer.

“The School Safety officers just came about in code this past legislative session,” Cunningham said. “They are law enforcement officers and their task is to make sure that our schools are physically safe and people are practicing the right safety measures.”

Right now, the grant through the Department of Education is funding the employment of seven officers.

“We have those seven officers stationed strategically throughout the state and they have different regions where they work in their region and go to their schools,” Cunningham explained. 

The ultimate goal is to have officers in every school throughout the Mountain State. But Cunningham said it will take a while to get there.

“If we put one in every school, we are going to build a police force that is actually larger than the West Virginia State Police. I couldn’t give you an estimate, but I know in order to eat an elephant you have to go one bite at a time and that is where we are headed with this school safety officers program,” Cunningham said. 

Meanwhile this week at South Charleston High School Lt. Houck is spending the days leading up to the start of a new semester focusing on prevention, but also preparing for the worst-case scenario, like an active shooter. He just finished updated training.

“The training has changed,” he said. “Before it was stage and now it is you go, first person in, you don’t wait for backup, you get there you run, stop the killing, stop the shooting. That’s our goal now. We go in go, go, go. If you have to run past an injured person you go to stop the killing.”

It is a lot to think about, even for a police officer. And it is training he hopes to never need as he does everything possible to keep his school secure. 

Statewide, school safety leaders have also been encouraging people to use the See Send app to report concerns. The app is free to download and anyone in the community can send a tip about anything from seeing a door on a school building propped open to a direct threat to a student or school.

You can view the West Virginia Safe Schools Initiative HERE.

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