Nikiski seeks SRO for middle/high school

Nikiski residents voiced concern about a lack of law enforcement during a Nov. 3 community council meeting. The absence of Alaska State Troopers and persistent drug problems topped residents’ worries.

The Nikiski Community Council hopes to address those problems, as outlined in its recently updated community action plan. Goal E of the plan includes the item: promote funding and pursue the presence of school resource officers at Nikiski Middle/High School to improve overall safety and response time.

“I don’t believe we have a safety issue in the building,” said Nikiski Middle/High School Principal Dan Carstens. “The desire comes from the educational impact. There’s teaching programs (led by officers), and kids build positive working relationships with law enforcement.”

Carstens said he thinks the school is far from getting a school resource officer, but the council is pursuing possible avenues. The troopers are stretched thin and don’t consider a full-time SRO possible at this point. Soldotna post Capt. Andrew Greenstreet is optimistic about future expansion of the agency, however.

After hearing and inquiring about officers at the Peninsula’s city schools, Carstens began looking into the possibility of a SRO. Also, the assistant principal worked with a school resource officer in Colorado and expressed interest in the idea, he said.

Planning is in the beginning stages; the interested parties haven’t determined the cost.

The City of Kenai’s school resource officer receives a stage 16 salary, which falls between $62,645 and $75,165, said city manager Rick Koch. The money comes from the city’s general fund, and the officer’s salary is generally in the middle of the range. The department likes to pick an officer who’s been in the community a couple years, he said.

A trooper working as a community resource officer — a full-time employee who covers the area’s schools, as well as the town — isn’t currently possible. The Soldotna post lacks the resources, and officers are forced to work reactively rather than proactively, he said.

The initial year’s expenses for a trooper tasked with the aforementioned duties would cost the state about $290,000. This includes the cost of training and equipment. Every year thereafter would cost closer to $200,000, Greenstreet said.

However, Greenstreet said he was encouraged by a November press release from Gov. Sean Parnell’s office requesting $2.8 million for 15 new troopers in the fiscal year 2014 budget. The Peninsula would receive five of the troopers, if the Legislature supports the idea.

“I can’t guarantee that I could make one of them a Nikiski community resource officer. Right now, I just can’t say that,” Greenstreet said. “I would like to; I think there’s a real need for it.”

The captain taught the DARE program during his employment as a Sitka police officer. Also, he taught the drug program at Bush schools when he became a trooper. The program is important, he said.

The program is so important to the captain that he pays one trooper overtime to teach DARE at Tustumena and Nikiski North Star elementary schools every year, he said. Sterling Elementary hosts the program every other year.

Troopers visit the community’s high school occasionally. If something criminal occurs at the school, they make the trip. Their presence is appreciated, Carstens said.

When three men vandalized Nikiski Middle/High School in Sept. 2011, troopers stopped at the school to chat with administrators and gauge how the student body perceived the event. On one occasion, a new recruit was brought out and introduced to the faculty. Daily interactions would solidify those bonds with the community.

“Just being able to build that relationship with law enforcement out here,” Carstens said. “At times, it seems hard to get any of them out here; they cover such a large area.”

Also, troopers are regular features of educational assemblies about safe driving and drugs.

If the plan for a SRO comes to fruition, Carstens’ initial task would be scheduling.

“It’d be very nice if we had a set amount of time with (the trooper) each day,” he said. “That way, they could visit classes, run their programs and help us with discipline when needed.”

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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