Grand County School District students are getting used to seeing a new face in the halls this year — that of Moab City Police Officer Larry Velasquez, the new school resource officer.
The school resource officer’s job, according to Moab City Police Chief Jim Winder, is based on a model used by many jurisdictions including at his previous jurisdiction in Salt Lake County.
“The school resource officer will be essentially housed in the high school, so he has a physical office there. That is where he will report to full time,” Winder said.
However, the school resource officer will also stay in touch with the administrations of the schools — Helen M. Knight Elementary, the Moab Charter School and Grand County Middle School — and respond to incidents there when necessary, Winder said.
Velasquez deals with issues such as truancy and alcohol and tobacco violations as well as more serious matters, such as cases of child neglect and abuse, Winder said. The school resource officer coordinates with school officials on any interviews that need to be done and makes sure that cases are followed up on, either by following up personally or by giving the case to Division of Child and Family Services or other investigators in Moab.
There is one difference between Moab’s model and traditional school resource officers, however. Due to the passage of House Bill 239 in March, schools are now required to refer fewer offenses to the criminal justice system. That means students in Grand County will not end up in juvenile court for less serious offenses, like skipping class.
The new law affects “things like truancy or tobacco, even some other minor offenses that used to be, you’d send them over to juvenile court,” Winder said. “That has positives and it certainly has some negatives. The objective now is that there are school-based diversions so they’ll impose some other sanctions … the purpose of that is to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system so they’re not branded by, gee, I was sent to [juvenile hall.]”
That said, Velasquez is also tasked with handling criminal cases.
“There will always be cases in any community where youth will violate a law that results in a referral to juvenile court and that will be one of Larry’s roles. And our objective here isn’t to make a bunch of arrests. Our objective here is to solve problems and to do so in a creative way and that is aided by having Larry being in there and communicating with the school and the parents and the students and understanding more of the environment and the issues,” Winder said.
Velasquez said that his primary job is to keep students safe, calling his role that of a “deterrent.”
“I don’t necessarily think that my job should be purely disciplinary. I want to be peace of mind for parents, the other students, teachers … to mitigate crimes just by being here [and] try to give people easier access to law enforcement should they need it,” Velasquez said.
Winder made establishing a school resource officer a priority when he became police chief, according to Grand County High School Principal Stephen Hren.
“We were trying to get another one back in place just because of the economic situation and the employee situation and both the sheriff and city police, they were not ever able to build that position very quickly. Then with the new police chief coming in, that was one of his priorities was getting a school resource officer back in place so happily we have one back in place again,” Hren said.
The position is important, Hren said, because it allows students to “interact more on a daily basis with police officers so they can develop that rapport with that agency.”
It also helps the school out, he said.
“When it comes to things like being able to watch the driving of students in the parking lot, we really don’t have a lot of time to be going out, watching the parking lot as much as needed and so with having a school resource officer that’s something that they do,” Hren said. “Investigations such as if there was a theft or there was a vandalism or something happening within the school setting, we can give that to the school resource officer so they can kind of begin the investigation and figure out what happened ... and then they also help supervise school dances, other activities [and] sports activities. It’s a lot better that way.”
Chief Winder agreed, saying, “The primary role of law enforcement is a control function and that is being sure that we can respond to 911 calls, et cetera. Almost equal to that though is school resource. When you have several hundred students and the issues that arise from that, it’s very important that you have an individual that is primarily responsible for that. It’s a segment of the community that has to have direct law enforcement contact and engagement to the city, even though our resources are very limited, they’re committed to that. It’s just very, very important.”