When Officer Todd Summerhays works with teenagers, he’s a straight-shooter and they tend to listen up.
The gist of what he tells students is: “Life sucks sometimes, and you are going to hear things you don’t want to hear, whether your girlfriend broke up with you, you failed a class, or somebody told you something you didn’t want to hear. But you’ve got to start getting some skills so you can handle that,” he said.
School is practice for the workforce, he says. Once you’re getting paid for your work, second, third and fourth chances aren’t a given. “You act this way at work, goodbye!”
Keeping students safe: In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, ensuring student safety and security has become an urgent national issue. Today we profile two officers who are charged with doing just that — and much more.
See related story: School safety supervisor: putting out fires, building relationships, calming students and staff
|Kent County Sheriff’s Department School Resource Officers
While his approach is frank, Summerhays also has an undeniable gift for gab and a wide-open personality. He doesn’t look at students differently after they make poor choices. He wants them to get and stay on the right track. “People mess up. They make mistakes. It is what it is,” he said.
Summerhays is the district’s School Resource Officer, stationed in an office at Lowell High School and serving 3,500 students in seven different buildings. A 20-year Kent County Sheriff’s Department officer, he’s served Lowell schools for four years, spending his days where needed, from catching drivers zinging through red lights at four-way stops on the bus route, to making presentations to students on the repercussions of cyberbullying and sexting. He also deals with criminal activity and other problems.
Like all police officers, he is armed, uniformed and trained in law enforcement.
Education through a Cop’s Lens
But unlike many officers, he’s become familiar with the world of school policies, standardized tests and Individual Education Plans, or IEPs. Plus, he’s gotten used to stepping out of his comfort zone in ways he wouldn’t have a few years ago. “Talking about the evils of vaping to heath classes” isn’t on a cop’s typical schedule, he joked.
But when it comes to topics teens might dismiss from other adults, they take him seriously. There is just something about the badge and uniform.
“He’s a pretty cool guy,” said senior Amber Brown. “I feel a lot safer because we have him here. With him around, knowing there’s a higher authority, people won’t try stuff.”
Summerhays is one of eight Kent County officers working in local school districts through a partnership between the department and districts. His main role is to ensure safety by securing buildings, monitoring surveillance videos and responding quickly and appropriately to anything amiss.
Stationing officers in schools has become a common practice, with the city of Wyoming Public Safety Department assigning SROs to Wyoming, Godfrey-Lee, and Kelloggsville schools. The city of Grandville partners with Grandville Public Schools to assign an SRO, and Godwin Heights, Kentwood, Rockford and Grand Rapids schools have extensive security teams, including some certified police officers.
In the 2013–14 school year, 43 percent of public schools reported the presence of one or more security guards, security personnel, School Resource Officers, or sworn law enforcement officers at their school at least once a week during the school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Relationships are Key
A major part of the job is forming relationships and building trust, said Sgt. Joel Roon, community outreach director for Kent County Sheriff’s Department.
“The benefit of the SRO program is definitely two-fold,” Roon said. “It tends to have a grounding effect for us. It gives us a unique perspective that we didn’t have before about the culture of our youth.”
SROs get to know students’ likes and dislikes and issues on their minds, Roon said. It humanizes youth for police officers and police officers for youth. “That lets us interact on a personal level and gives us insight to serve that part of the population better.”
The partnership also brings safety programming into the schools, and provides educators with an on-hand consultant on law and difficult situations, Roon said.
For certain, it’s been a memorable year for SROs, with school security on the forefront of national discussion.
Both the Michigan House and Senate are addressing school safety concerns by earmarking funds and proposing new legislation. School-security personnel nationwide have spent recent weeks addressing heightened fears and questions from worried students and parents, who have pushed for more action since the Feb. 14 Parkland High School school shooting.
Following the Parkland tragedy, Summerhays was inundated with emails and questions from parents. He and other local SROs remain on high alert.
“Anything remotely threatening toward staff or the school, we are taking to the highest priority,” he said. “Every last one of those, no matter how mundane, is reviewed by the prosecutor’s office.”
College to Peace Corps to Patrol Car
Summerhays, the son of a college baseball coach and teacher, took an unorthodox path to law enforcement. A talented math student who lived “everywhere,” including Lansing, he earned two engineering degrees from Michigan State University. After graduating, however, he soon realized life in a cubicle was not for him. He joined AmeriCorps, which landed him at Eaton County Jail as an adult-education instructor.
“I had had no exposure to law enforcement,” he said. But an undersheriff who worked there invited him on ride-alongs, and it wasn’t long before Summerhays enrolled in the Police Academy at Lansing Community College.
His first job as an officer was a year-round position on Mackinac Island, where he spent three years patrolling on bikes and snowmobiles. After that, he covered road patrol for Kent County and worked for 10 years as a field training officer.
Being an SRO is a different kind of role and requires follow-up, he said. He sees students every day, unlike a road cop who stops a driver, tickets them and sends them on their way. While he covers the entire district, he spends the bulk of his time at the high school.
Problems he has had to address include cyberbullying and sexting, possession of pills, alcohol and other drugs, and fighting. But the message he drives home to students again and again involves the smart phones in their hands. There are countless ways to get in trouble using technology, he says.
“I think he does a fantastic job of letting our students know the consequences of misuse of technology,” said Jake Strotheide, Lowell High School coordinator of student support. “He’s really been a big advocate for that.
“He’s been a big asset for our school district. We are really lucky to have him and his expertise.”
Someone to Talk To
Also, many teens who come to the attention of law enforcement are dealing with anxiety and depression. Summerhays said he’s thankful for community connections to agencies like Network 180. “Mental health is a massive, massive issue right now,” he said.
For students, it’s nice to have someone watching out for them, and who they can turn to if needed, said junior Hadyn Nash. “We always have someone to talk to easily,” she said.
Congenial yet authoritative, Summerhays spends his time at Lowell paying attention: to students, to camera monitors and to anything that otherwise might go unheeded. But mostly his attention is on preparing students for productive lives.
“I like kids,” he said. “The more you are around them, if you can help them do well it makes you feel good, even if you know you had just a small part of that.”