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School-Police Program Pared, Alarming Parents

With county budget cuts looming on the horizon, four of the seven county School Education Officer positions may get eliminated from the county payroll. The officers' presence and expertise is the driving force behind some parents push to keep the program.

School Education Officers are uniformed police officers that go to school with a set curriculum. They teach different safety courses at each grade level as well as the standard safety patrol curriculum. If the budget cuts go as planned, four of the seven county School Education Officer positions get eliminated from the county payroll and the officers would be reassigned in the Fairfax County Police Department. That would leave three officers to cover 151 elementary schools next year, leaving only time for the safety patrol classes for only those students enrolled in that program.

Vicky Wuerful has two children at Terra Centre Elementary School in Burke and is also the PTA president there. She looks at the material the SEOs teach as vital in relation to world events and the high profile area around Washington, D.C. Safety for the children in school has been a reoccuring theme she's heard.

"That's all [Fairfax County Public Schools Supervisor] Domenech has been talking about for several weeks," Wuerful said. In a school lock down situation, she added "they would be the one of the first on site."

Lisa Toler has two daughters at Silverbrook Elementary School in Springfield and one that's moved on to Hayfield Secondary. They all went through the safety patrol classes offered by the SEOs.

"All my girls have been safety patrols," Toler said. "I would think cutting police officers that are helping the schools is the last thing to cut. The kids are given so much responsibility as a safety patrol."

At the kindergarten level, the SEOs teach students about bus and pedestrian safety, as well as guns, knives and bullets. The first graders receive lessons called "Stranger Danger" and "Good Touch/Bad Touch." In second grade, they learn more about pedestrian safety, grade three is safety belts and grade four is bicycle safety. The fifth graders receive gang awareness lessons and sixth graders learn about drug and alcohol abuse. These programs would all be eliminated with a reduction in the program. Wuerful called the value of these lessons "immeasurable."

"Nobody else talks about those things except these officers," Wuerful said.

Fairfax County Police Capt. Sharon Smith acknowledged the potential deficiencies in these particular areas but looked at it optimistically.

"The program would basically entail the safety patrol program," she said. "It's definetly going to be a challenge."

In a letter to Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech, Wuerfel stressed her concerns.

"The loss of our safety curriculum and the safety patrol program, as we know it today, are two tangible wounds our elementary schools will suffer if these positions are cut from the county budget," Wuerfel wrote.

The letter went on to address Wuerfel's concern about the positive aspect of children being introduced to police officers early on in their lives before the high school and middle school years where "life circumstances and outside influences are at work to put a 'negative light' on law enforcement's role in society."

School spokesperson Paul Regnier wasn't sure what the school will do to remedy the situation.

"We haven't figured out what the reprecussions would be. It's just a proposal now. Obviously the police officers bring a certain expertise," he said.

WUERFUL GOT her chance to address the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on April 7 at a meeting where other tax supporters who voiced other pro-tax concerns were booed by attendees. Although she feels increased taxes are one way to achieve the education goals, she carefully worded her response.

"I didn't get booed like a lot of people did," she said.

Wuerful does feel that the anti-tax message is taking an anti-education stance as well, she is looking at her neighbors for support. At the same time, she did not think taxing the elderly was fair either.

"I know of residents that would be more than willing to give money for schools," Wuerful said.