WHEELING - In just three years, Wheeling has lost almost three-fourths of the federal funding that helps pay for full-time city police officers at Wheeling Park High School and Warwood, Triadelphia, Bridge Street and Wheeling middle schools.
As a result, a larger share of the cost to keep those officers in schools likely will fall on local taxpayers as federal assistance declines. The Ohio County Board of Education has already budgeted $196,000 to reimburse the Wheeling Police Department for what the federal grant doesn't cover this year.
Wheeling will receive just $30,000 in Justice Assistance Grant funding for prevention resource officers this year, down from $40,000 in 2012, and dramatically less than the $115,000 and $100,000 it received in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Agencies throughout West Virginia received a total of $1.3 million through the grant, down from $2.8 million in 2011.
Photo by Ian Hicks
Wheeling police Sgt. John Schultz, right, meets with Wheeling Middle School counselor Denise Freeland and Principal Rich McCardle. Schultz is the school’s prevention resource officer.
Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger said he is grateful for the county school system's support, and he believes the federal government is shortchanging what he considers to be one of the most professional, well-run prevention resource officer programs in the state.
"School safety should be a priority. ... I'm a bit frustrated that we still get the same amount of money as other jurisdictions that only dedicate one officer," Schwertfeger said.
Superintendent Dianna Vargo could not be reached for comment, but Ohio County Schools spokesman Gabe Wells said the officers are valuable assets for the school system.
"We love having them. ... Having (an officer) in the school makes you safer, but they also teach, which is fantastic," Wells said.
Prevention resource officers often don't know in what role they'll be called upon to serve from one day to the next - law enforcer, teacher or counselor.
Sgt. Don Miller has been assigned to Bridge Street Middle School for the past five years. After his first year at the school, he said, the number of classroom disruption incidents he had to get involved with dropped from about 300 to 43.
Just last month, a potentially dangerous situation was averted at Wheeling Middle School when officials found a loaded handgun in a student's locker after parents and other students alerted that school's resource officer, Sgt. John Schultz.
By being in the schools, Miller added, prevention resource officers also can be more responsive to problems students may be facing at home, such as abuse and neglect.
He said the rapport that develops between the officers, students and their parents is extremely rewarding, and he and his fellow officers won't hesitate to use their time off to work various after-school events if there's no money in the overtime budget.
"I get up every morning and I can't wait to come to work," Miller said.