Local school resource officers protect, serve and make a difference in kids’ lives
By Abigail Thorpe
We see them every day—at the school drop off, walking through school halls and classrooms, being a visible presence during lunch, or simply out and about in the communities we call home. In communities from Bonners Ferry to Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene, school resource officers (SROs) keep our kids safe every day, but we often forget about the longer-lasting impact they have on students’ lives. Their days aren’t just about safety—they’re about connecting with students and making a difference.
“We have a very strong potential to change some of these kids' lives,” says Officer Dale Anderson, SRO for Bonners Ferry elementary, middle and high schools. “If they see you're willing to help them out as a true resource, they're going to be a lot more comfortable coming to talk to you.”
Anderson started his law enforcement career in Salt Lake Valley in 1992. He then worked for the Las Vegas Metro Police for 10 years in felony charges crimes before coming to Bonners Ferry to retire. He soon found himself out of retirement and serving as the local school resource officer.
His days are busy—he’s responsible for five schools in Bonners Ferry, but he still makes the time to visit the schools when there’s no call for service so he can be seen on a friendly note and feel approachable to students. It’s something you’ll find common among school resource officers—the desire to be more than just security. Their ultimate goal is to be a resource for success.
“When they see me, if it's not an official investigation or something, it’s all fun,” says Anderson. He often hangs out in classes or around the halls and cafeteria. “I think it's a great resource for the kids to understand that ‘these cops aren't always here to arrest us or site us, but this guy might actually care about where I go in my future.’”
Last year, Anderson started a safe driving initiative at the school, which he hopes to continue later this year. Kids who want to be involved get a number, and when a deputy or law enforcement officer sees them wearing their seat belt and driving responsibly, they report that number to go into a drawing at the end of each month, when winning names are drawn to receive a gift from the community. It’s a key part of how Anderson hopes to promote safe driving, and he’s happy to share his experience and help other SROs who want to implement a similar program.
School resource officers aren’t there to just get kids in trouble—they want to build relationships so they can help a student wherever they’re at, before something bad happens. When it comes to student safety, “culture and relationships are your biggest deterrents,” says Officer Mario Rios, Coeur d’Alene High School SRO and public information officer.
“When they see an officer who wants to be in their school and who actually cares about them, they are more apt to come to you with things they hear. They will come to you even if they feel they are struggling with their own thoughts and feelings.”
This is the ultimate goal and role a school resource officer fills: to build a positive experience with students so that they have the potential to change lives. Rios became an SRO in the fall of 2017 after the principal at the time reached out and suggested he put in for the position. His assignment at CHS since has by far been the best experience he’s had.
“I think any day where I can go home and look at a situation where I know I made a connection with a student, it’s a good day,” he adds. “I have had kids from my first school year who were in my office and told me how they hate cops and don’t trust them. I told each of these students that I wasn’t going to force a relationship but that my hope was to change their opinion of what they see in a uniform.”
Fast forward several years, and those same students greet Rios outside of school, coming to him to tell him how well they’re doing or how they’re working through struggles. “To me that is a difference,” he says.
Officers like Anderson and Rios never know quite what to expect. Their days can change by the hour, and they often split their time between multiple locations, working to be a presence to provide safety, making time for students to come and talk, and also just being around in hallways, classrooms and lunch rooms to get to know the students, support them and encourage them toward success.
Many of the students the SROs connect with are kids who haven’t received a whole lot of attention or support in their lives. “Our presence in the schools allows us to interact with at-risk youth, become a positive role model and provide safety for the school,” says Detective Ashley Caiafa, a school resource officer for multiple elementary schools in Coeur d’Alene.
The New York native knew she wanted to work with kids from early on, and when she applied to the Coeur d’Alene Police Department, it was with the goal of becoming a school resource officer.
She often spends her days helping students with class work, walking the halls and hanging out with students during lunch, or playing with the kids during recess. Like other resource officers, her day starts by greeting students when they arrive for school, and making sure drivers and students are safe as they arrive. At the end of the day, she’s ready and waiting to give the kids a smile and wave as they leave.
“I hope that my presence in the schools give the kids a sense of security so their education can flourish,” says Caiafa. “Every day I go to work and try my best to build a rapport with every student at my schools. I try and go above and beyond in my everyday duties and try to think outside the box.”
This last Halloween, Caiafa had 25 students dress as police officers—they all wanted to be like her when they grew up. “I knew at that moment I was making a lasting impression on these kids. I see kids outside of work and they recognize me. They give me hugs or high fives and tell everyone that I am their ‘school cop.’ It all just puts a smile on my face,” she says.
As schools reconvene this year with changed hours, reduced classroom sizes or fewer school activities because of COVID, school resource officers like Anderson, Rios and Caiafa anticipate new challenges and hurdles but continue to focus on the goal: being there for the students. “Any interaction I am able to have with them is going to be better than not having any,” explains Caiafa. “The kids need this connection and interaction with their peers,” adds Anderson. “If I maintain my presence in the school and support the school staff and what's going on, it'll be a bump in the road, but it will be short lived, I believe.”