At the outset of the new school year in August, it was easy to see the beginnings of change in the Gary Community School Corporation. Instead of teachers taking on the responsibility of welcoming their students, a few kids petitioned Superintendent Pruitt to let them turn the tables. That’s why, during the first week of class, they hosted their own pep rally to get the year started their way.
The students put together a program in the West Side Leadership Academy auditorium that included student dance routines, vocal performances and an address by the mayor. West Side seniors Kayla Warren and Delawrence Nixon served as emcees. They introduced a lineup of new staff – including several rookie teachers and administrators, who appeared a bit timid before their new school community.
Then came onstage a group who could not appear timid if they tried: the district's new security and support staff.
Members of GCSC's security and support staff line up onstage at West Side high school, behind seniors Kayla Warren and Delawrence Nixon. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)
Aside from being a physically intimidating group, the majority-male security team is, as one would expect, a serious crew...until Officer Harris comes up. Towering over Warren, he takes the microphone from her hand and clears his throat.
"I need everyone to stand please," Harris announces over the loudspeaker, to roaring laughter from the teachers and staff in the audience, as well as students lining the stage wings. A smile bursts onto his face: "I’m Officer Nate Harris, I’m the resource officer here at West Side Leadership Academy!"
Officer Harris is tall, he’s big, he has a booming voice – but to Gary staff and students, he’s “Officer Friendly.”
"Officer Friendly is a good term – I like it because that means I’m friendly, I smile a lot," Harris says. "I smile all the time, in here and out of here."
He's telling the truth. At Harris' side roaming the hallways at West Side, it's hard not to be affected by his infectious smile. He makes eye contact with everyone he sees, greeting them with a hug, a handshake, or a "how you doin'?"
Officer Harris, aka "Officer Friendly"
Officer Friendly is the perfect example of what the Gary Community School Corporation expects out of its newly configured security staff. The district – and the city surrounding it – has a history of disciplinary issues. It’s perhaps one of the few perceptions of Gary that most of its citizens wouldn’t dispute as reality: the city’s crime rate is two-and-a-half times the national rate. The highest percentage of students referred to the Lake County Juvenile Center come from the Gary School Corporation.
So, in response, at the end of last school year, the district required all of its police officers to reapply for their jobs. If they were asked to come back, they did so with a new title: school resource officer. In announcing the new system, Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt tells community members that it has been tried and tested in other districts.
"If you go into other communities, or to the suburban communities, some of those offenses that our children do here, they may do there, but they don’t end up in jail," Pruitt says.
The new group of 28 officers received training on how to deal specifically with students in the school setting. Officer Harris says this was necessary, because in the past, school officials had been applying the same law enforcement techniques on students that they were on the streets – and it wasn’t very effective.
"I believe that trend went on far too long," Harris says. "One thing I say to them [is] ‘Hey, I’m your resource officer, I’m here to be resourceful for you, I’m here to help you.’ By telling them that, it calms them down, ‘Ok, he’s on my side.’"