Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series examining the issue of bullying and its impact on students, parents and educators.
Jennifer Herring has one biological child but says she feels like a mother to the more than 1,000 students who attend Forestbrook Middle School.
Herring, a lance corporal with the Horry County Police Department, has been assigned to the school for eight years as its school resource officer. She is among more than two dozen police officers who spend their days patrolling the hallways and grounds of area middle and high schools.
With recent events involving weapons at school and heightened attention on bullying, area authorities say the officers counsel students and prevent many incidents.
"In two years, SROs were involved in two situations that were very unsettling, but it was because of their swift actions that prevented those situations from escalating," said Teal Britton, spokeswoman for Horry County Schools.
The first of those occurred Oct. 16, 2009, when Trevor Varinecz, a 16-year-old student at Carolina Forest High School, was shot to death after police said he attacked a school resource officer in his office inside the school. In September, a school resource officer subdued a 14-year-old Socastee High School student, who remains in custody on juvenile charges that he tried to shoot the resource officer and took two pipe bombs to the school. Prosecutors want to charge the teen as an adult and will argue their case during a hearing Friday.
Bullying played a role in both cases, say those involved in the incidents. School officials have said they were not aware of specific bullying incidents involving the two students. It is also not clear whether the resource officers had previous interactions with the students.
"In the best-case scenario, an SRO is an extension of what law enforcement provides in community policing," Britton said. "While they are not teachers, they are certainly a part of the school culture and should be seen as an ally and a helper to students. The unfortunate part is in the day-to-day discipline, and if the situation warrants, they are also there to provide processing of certain cases and to deter situations."
The school resource officers are certified law enforcement officers and are based at the schools to detect and prevent criminal activity, according to authorities with area police departments.
"They're not here as a disciplinarian for the school. They act in a counseling role with students when they can and when it's appropriate," said Lt. John Harrelson, who supervises the 15 school resource officers employed with Horry County police.
Horry County's program began more than 15 years ago when officers rotated at schools to teach the DARE drug-resistance program. School officials received federal grants 15 years ago to start the resource officer program.
Today, Horry County's 15 officers are assigned to the district's middle and high schools in unincorporated areas of the county, Harrelson said.
"They're a law enforcement officer. They have law enforcement experience," he said. "They're not a security guard. Some schools do employ security guards to provide assistance."
The presence of school resource officers at area schools, specifically high schools, have been highlighted in the past couple of years with incidents involving students bringing weapons to school.
In the first quarter of 2010-11, Horry County Schools records show that in total, 18 schools had 41 weapons violations, 38 counts for weapons other than firearms, two counts for handguns and one count for other firearm (not a handgun or rifle/shotgun). In the 2009-10 school year, a total of 33 schools had 81 weapons violations, 75 counts for weapons other than firearms, three for handguns, two for rifle/shotgun and one for other firearm.
Police officers based in the schools also often assist students in making choices that deter criminal activity and its consequences, such as bullying, Britton said.
"The SROs are not teachers, but they are utilized by the educational staff to help kids understand issues about laws, issues about their individual rights, issues about drugs, alcohol and bullying-type behavior," Britton said. "We would hope the SROs are seen by the students as a positive influence."
The duty of a school resource officer is "school safety, student interaction and mentoring, teaching, criminal enforcement, liaison between school and the [Police] Department," said Myrtle Beach police Capt. Faith Gildea, who oversees two officers assigned to schools in the city.
"If there are reports of problems in a school, staff can immediately notify the SRO, unless they witness the event," Gildea said. "While every behavior issue does not rise to the level of criminality, as a member of the staff they are responsible to notify the principal."
Herring said when students arrive at the school as sixth-graders, they will be fearful of her as a police officer. After a few weeks, the kids will become comfortable and share information about school activity.
"You kind of become almost a parent to some of these kids. I try to help them see we [as police officers] are not bad for them. It makes them see we are there to help them," Herring said. "We're a law enforcement officer first. We're a law-related educator and we're a law-related counselor. I tell the kids, 'I'm here for you.' They want to be your friend, but they're kind of afraid of you."
Herring has witnessed how her role at the school can impact students and their potential involvement in criminal activity. She said she's had several students who were once headed down the wrong path turn their lives around and graduate high school, lead successful lives.
"Bullying has always been around. A lot of the things I see are the things I dealt with when I was in school," Herring said. "Over my eight years I haven't seen a rise in bullying in the school. It's all been the same."
Herring teaches a class with students to talk about bullying and what qualifies as bullying, she said. "I do a lot of mediating here. There'll be best friends that have words," Herring said. "I always tell them to think about what you're saying to someone because you can't take it back, and how would it feel if it was said to you."
She tries to head off problems before they occur.
"I'll often work with parents to correct the situation before the child gets in trouble," Herring said. "If students see something happening, even if they're unsure what it is, they should report it to an adult."
Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723.