New Canaan's School Resource Officer talks facts with students
"Have you ever shot anyone?"
"Do you have a taser?"
These are the questions New Canaan Public School students love to ask School Resource Officer (SRO) Ron Bentley.
Though he is a New Canaan Police Officer, Bentley reports to work at the high school -- not the police department. In fact, he says he rarely spends time in the department. He is stationed in an office at the school from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every school day as part of a two-year special assignment that commenced in September. According to Sgt. Carol Ogrinc, more than 100 students meet with Bentley each month.
In addition to manning an office with an open door policy, Bentley speaks to classes about peer pressure and good decision-making at least once each day, heads the Police Club and attends an array of after-school events. And, when necessary, he enforces the law.
"The kids ask me a lot of law questions and questions about life in general, like what they can expect out of life when they leave here [and] when they go to college, what can they expect," he said. "They can come in and ask any type of question they want. It's about building relationships. ... But I'm only 33 years old, so I'm not much older to give them all the answers."
Until three years ago, NCHS students didn't have an SRO in the building. Student-officer contact was largely skewed to enforcement situations, leaving many youth with a sour taste for policemen and women.
Before the SRO program was instated, Huertas said, many teens viewed police officers as unapproachable enforcement agents who solely existed to keep them in line. Now, she says, through Bentley's outreach and student-lead efforts like Police Club, teens are beginning to view local officers as their friends.
"We never had a relationship with the youth in town," Bentley said. "There was a big disconnect. And now since we've been there it's a lot better. It's been great."
For Bentley, the importance of his dual role as an officer and a youth role model is personal.
"My roots are here," he said. "My aunt used to have a food stand here in town ... the cops and the highway workers used to come down and eat breakfast and lunch and I would always go down there in the morning. I always got a ride with a police officer at least two or three times a week to school. So my interaction as a young child was always awesome with the cops. I was always intrigued by the radio and the gear. I always wanted to be a cop."
He added, "I graduated at the high school in '94, so that's kind of my in with the kids. I tell them I know what it's like to grow up here in town, I know what it's like with the pressures of school and the drugs and the alcohol and what have you. I tell them that when I was at the high school, I never had an opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with a police officer. The only interactions I ever had were out there either getting pulled over or getting yelled at by a cop, which is lame. ... A lot of them take advantage of this. It's like I'm a psychologist, I'm a parent, I'm this and I'm that for them."
According to Assistant Principal Dawn Bartz, Bentley has quickly integrated himself into the student community, since he arrived at the high school five months ago. According to police department statistics, Bentley participated 261 student conferences, parent conferences and extra curricular activities in the fall of 2009.
Bentley's work in the school has been particularly influential for the class of 2011, she said. The class came in as freshmen as one of the largest classes the high school has seen in many years, she said. As freshmen, the students could largely be characterized as bystanders, she said. Leaders among the pack were few and far between, she said.
"Most of the class is made up of good kids, but they weren't stepping up," Bartz said.
Since they have experienced the SRO program and other leadership initiatives, Bartz said, the students, now totaling about 325, have become more confident and more disciplined. The number of disciplinary incidents that occur among the class has dropped significantly since their freshman year, she said.
"These [leadership programs] target the kid who don't tend to be the top student or the team captain," Bartz explained. "They tend to be the middle kids who are just good kids, but may not get recognized."
Last Friday, the Police Club organized a bowling event with Bentley and three of his fellow officers. Sixteen students joined the officers for an afternoon of strikes, pizza and laughs.
Police Club Co-President Krista Carmel, 17, describes the club as an opportunity for students to befriend police officers and learn about law enforcement. There are 200 registered members, she said.
"We actually get to know [the officers]," Carmel said, adding, "You learn they're not trying to get you in trouble; they are looking out for you."
Police Club members have learned how to use police tools like handcuffs and batons. They have also toured the Garner Correctional Facility in Newtown.
These events are funded by an $8,000 Police and Youth State Grant, Ogrinc said. The funding covers the cost of activities like bowling, transportation, officer overtime and refreshments, she said.
Though the SRO program is thriving, the longevity of Bentley's high school assignment is jeopardized anytime the police force is stretch thin. According to Chief Edward Nadriczny, Bentley might need to be pulled from his position in the high school to cover staff shifts and shortages.
"That's a last resort," Ogrinc said. "The students have to have consistency. They have to know that [Bentley] is there from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. everyday."
While it's not an immediate threat, Bentley said it is a reality. For now, he said he focuses on the work he is doing with the students today and does not worry about what could be tomorrow.
"I tell them to realize this opportunity right now because when you leave here, you may never get this opportunity again--to have a one-on-one conversation with a police officer who is really going to have a conversation with you," he said.