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'More than a uniform'

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

School Resource Officer Vern Rucker pulls on an imaginary rope for a tug-of-war while clowning around with fourth- and fifth-graders at Kemper Elementary School.

By Michael Maresh Journal staff writer

Vern Rucker and Buck Woodman consider themselves much more than police officers.

Everyday during the school year the two Cortez Police officers interact with students in their jobs as school resource officers for the Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1.

Both work Monday through Friday, with Woodman pulling a 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift and Rucker working from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The officers rotate between schools during their shifts.

The two, whose primary duty is to ensure the schools remain safe, think they are good role models for the students. They enjoy showing students that they are real people who can be approached.

Rucker also teaches the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program to all fifth-graders in the district and works at all of the elementary schools, including Battlerock Charter School down McElmo Canyon.

He also teaches a 10-lesson DARE course for seventh-graders at the middle school.

Rucker and Woodman also are available to speak to classes on specific topics like when a teacher asked them to talk about laws on search and seizure for a government class.

Woodman said they try to inform students what not to do on the Internet or text on cell phones, as well as the dangers of drinking and driving.

"We are way more than a uniform in the school." Rucker said. "We become a part of the schools. Kids realize we are law enforcement, but they look at us as much more than that."

The school district pays for the salary of one SRO, while the city picks up the cost for the second position.

The Re-1 school district once had three school resource officers.

A lot of the officers' work comes at the request of district administration and the school board.

Rucker, who has been a SRO for 16 years, got his start when he went into the schools to teach the DARE program, while Woodman began working as an SRO four years ago when an opening became available.

"It's more fun," Woodman said in explaining the difference between being a patrol officer and a SRO.

"We get to work with kids," he added. "We get to do something with children."

Rucker added that they are a good resource for students that feel they have no one else to talk to.

"We are not the hallway monitor," he said. "A lot of our job (revolves) around safety. It could be a safety situation to a fire-code violation."

He said patrolmen usually do not get the opportunity to spend extended time with the public because of the job responsibilities, but SROs have the ability and time to interact with students and teachers.

"Our police chief sees the value of having a police officer in the schools," Rucker said. "We are a huge part of public safety. We are someone the kids can go through."

Woodman said their presence in the schools could deter people from coming to the schools to commit a criminal act, mentioning if one of these individuals sees a police car parked outside a school he or she will think twice about entering the school to execute their plan.

Both Rucker and Woodman declined to comment on the Dolores County School District plan to allow the superintendent and the high school principal to carry concealed weapons onto school grounds by naming them security officers.

Rucker said a security officer does not have the power or authority that allows them to take any law enforcement action, and added the $1 a year salary to become a security officer tells him the jobs of the superintendent and high school principal in that district have not changed.

Rucker also said the most difficult thing about his job is seeing the few students coming to school who struggle with discipline and structure because their parents failed to teach them these traits.

"That is tough because a lot of times they have not been taught these skills," he said.

Rucker and Woodman are available 24 hours a day seven days a week. They've been called at 3 a.m. by students who are in a bind.

There have been times when the school district receives a threat and both SROs are called. Rucker remembers waking up a student at 2 a.m. to determine if a rumor had any substance.

"A lot of times it starts as a rumor, but there are times when it becomes (a reality)," Rucker said. "You still have to check them out."

Both school resource officers work as patrol officers when school is not in session, meaning they need to be up to date on the training for both patrol and juvenile law. As police officers, they carry their weapons with them while on duty. That includes in the schools.

During the summer months and when school is not in session, the officers move back into patrol positions.

Re-1 Superintendent Alex Carter voiced his appreciation for the two SROs.

"The benefits of the long-standing relationship between the Cortez Police Department and the Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 cannot be overstated," Carter wrote in an email. "Officers Rucker and Woodman are not only highly trained law enforcement officers, they are highly valued members of our everyday school community. They do so much more than simply add 'muscle' to our school security operations."

Carter said Rucker and Woodman act as role models and mentors to many of their students.

"They are integral parts of our team," he said. "I don't know where we'd be without our committed and dedicated school resource officers."

michaelm@cortezjournal.com

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