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Erik Burgess, Published May 14 2013

County board OKs putting cops in some rural Clay schools

BARNESVILLE, Minn. – Officer Jeff Tharaldson remembers the feeling of getting his first full-time gig as a cop – hesitance with a dash of disappointment.

Instead of working the streets, he was assigned as a school resource officer here, the first of its kind in rural Clay County – set up with the help of a federal grant.

“You go through all that training (and) you want to be a road cop,” Tharaldson said. “But once I got here, and I got to know the faculty and the staff and all the kids, it turned out to be pretty positive in my career. I enjoy it a lot.”

Eleven years later, Tharaldson has warmed up to the job, but he is still the only school resource officer in the county, not including Moorhead.

That’s something county leaders want to change.

Clay County commissioners unanimously approved a proposal Tuesday by the sheriff’s office to hire a school resource officer for schools in Hawley and Ulen to share.

If approved by both district’s school boards, the new officer would start this coming school year.

It’s a position the sheriff’s office has wanted for several years, but budget restrictions have prevented it, said Chief Deputy Matt Siiro. Under the proposal, a sheriff’s deputy would split time between Hawley and Ulen-Hitterdal for nine months during the school year. Costs during that time would be split three ways between each school district and the Clay County Sheriff’s Office.

“You won’t find many people at all that will tell you today that an SRO program is a bad program or a waste of taxpayer dollars. I think it’s just the opposite,” Siiro said.

Ulen is about 15 miles north of Hawley. Both are in eastern Clay County.

During the summer, the officer would work full time as a deputy completely under the payroll of the sheriff’s office, Siiro said.

Phil Jensen was superintendent in Barnesville when Tharaldson was hired in 2003, and he knows that putting a “cop in your school” can cause concerns.

“And that’s really not what it is,” said Jensen, now superintendent in Hawley. “It’s not there because we’re having vandalism or having fights or anything like that.”

The officer is in the school to provide an immediate level of protection, Tharaldson said, but by being there, he also helps foster positive relationships between young students and law enforcement.

“We build some trust with each other, and they feel comfortable being around the officer,” he said.

School officers train to teach the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, but Tharaldson said he also presents on other subjects at the request of teachers and acts as a guidance counselor of sorts for students.

At Ulen-Hitterdal Public School, with about 300 K-12 students in one building, there is no full-time personal counselor. Superintendent Allen Zenor hopes an SRO could help fill that role, even part time.

“It’s more than an armed guard. That’s the thing we have to dispel,” Zenor said. “It’s a valuable resource to have here in the building when we can have him.”

Both school boards will likely discuss the proposal at their respective meetings Monday. Siiro said he is confident both will back the idea, given both superintendents are supportive.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518