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The City Journals

SROs: mentor, trusted adult, police officer

Nov 09, 2020 03:04PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest Junior High School students get to know Matt Dibble, their school resource officer, as well as appreciate his talents in music as he stars in Murray Police Department’s 2018 lip sync video. (Screenshot courtesy of Matt Dibble)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

In a time of social justice and political unrest, some parents may feel comforted that a police officer is assigned to protect their children in school, while other parents do not feel that way. In some U.S. cities, school districts are even reviewing their ties with police departments.

“A few states are getting rid of school resource officers; I don’t know if it’s because of the symbol or it’s just a way of retaliation how certain people feel about police,” Hillcrest Junior High School Resource Officer Matt Dibble said. “I wish people would just see the impact that school resource officers have on kids.” 

Often, the role of the school resource officer isn’t clear to an outsider. In Murray, there are school resource officers assigned to Murray and Cottonwood high schools, respectively, while in Murray school district, the two junior highs and seven elementaries share two additional Murray Police Department officers.

Dibble said he is responsible for safety and crime prevention, and also to have a presence at Hillcrest and the east-side elementary schools. 

“Usually about this time of age, they’re more curious about life and things and what they’re introduced to so hopefully we’re here to push them away from bad decisions they may make,” he said. “This is a prime time for kids to learn the positive things about police officers and just have an interaction.”

Besides checking for school safety, surveying security cameras, and usually walking the halls, giving the kids highs-5s, in a non-COVID-19 year, Dibble also is a guest speaker in classes, teaching students about his job as a police officer, the laws and protection of citizens’ rights, drug and alcohol awareness and answering questions they may have.

With more tensions in the world, Dibble was a little uncertain how students would see him this fall. 

“I wasn’t sure how coming into this school year kids would be with me, but I haven’t had any issues,” he said, adding that his concern was more with new students who didn’t know him than the returning students who “know who I am and how I treat people.”

Building relationships with students is key.

“It helps with interaction with students and police, a lot of them have bad experiences so we’re here to show them we’re human and I’m not here to get you in trouble,” he said. 

Two years ago, following the Parkland, Florida school shooting, Dibble and the school administration knew students were going to hold a protest against school violence.

“We had a walk out and we knew it was going to happen and we let them. We just told them protest all you want, but just stay in the field,” he said, adding that every student complied.

If the situation would have turned violent, Dibble would call for back-up. Then, he would identify students and notify their parents.

“A big part is getting parents involved so they’re aware of behaviors and what’s going on in school,” he said. “If, they’re (the students are) destroying property, we’re not going to let that happen. If they start assaulting others, they’re definitely going to be in custody or secured until we can let things calm down.”

Dibble works closely with school administration, counselors and the school social worker to determine the best course of action for students in any situation.

He also said there is a level of trust with student relationships. While SROs can’t randomly search lockers or backpacks without probable cause, Dibble can escort a student and a backpack to the school office, when he receives a tip, such as a student has a gun from either another student or the SafeUT app. 

Once at the office, Dibble and the administration would check for the weapon and address any issues surrounding it.

What makes it more challenging is when something may be posted online, and Dibble has to determine what is credible.

“It’s a big issue here, and at any school really, is social media and texting. A lot of kids say a lot of things over social media. A lot of things get misconstrued and you can’t really read emotions over texting, so it makes things really difficult,” he said. “A lot of bullying is done online, or over the phone, or it’s in person so they don’t leave a paper trail so if it’s difficult since there’s not a paper trail to determine if someone is being bullied or not.”

Dibble said he still investigates the charge and lets students know there are consequences.

For the most part, Dibble, who wears a blue polo and khakis, and carries his badge, handgun and handcuffs, hasn’t used much force with Hillcrest students. 

“I’ve wanted to avoid putting kids in handcuffs as much as possible because I don’t think that is the right answer for a lot of situations. I’ve only had to put like maybe two or three kids in the past five years in handcuffs. There are some that I’ve had to because they’ve been so unruly or combative,” he said, adding that one circumstance was after the student assaulted an administrator and another time, the student was flipping over a conference table. 

Dibble has never had to draw his handgun at the school, but he did say besides communication and having the mindset of working with this age group, having a situational awareness is important so he is able to respond immediately to a situation if necessary.

“Training just kicks in,” he said. “I’ve experienced where I haven’t dealt with something in a long time and all of a sudden, some kind of threat comes up, not necessarily here at the school, but on patrol for something, and all of a sudden your training kicks in. I don’t have to think twice. It’s a mode that I can turn on and off.”

Dibble’s role in elementary schools is also to calm an unruly student, or to track down a student who may have run away and answer students’ questions. 

High school SROs also attend extracurricular activities for a police presence. SROs also may have a role with talking to students about truancy.

Dibble had more than a decade of experience on patrol before he became a SRO five years ago. To become a SRO, he completed a 40-hour training program. 

In the summer months, Dibble returns to bike patrol in Murray’s parks or on the Jordan River trail where he will see students and they say hi.

Dibble is comfortable in the role as a mentor, a caring and trusting adult, a police officer who will give students high-5s—and in the role as a tactical cop.

“I just be myself and let them decide if they’re going to like me or not. I don’t try to convince them to like me, but I show them I am who I am,” he said.

Dibble hasn’t always been a police officer. He allows students to learn about him as a person behind the badge. On his office walls, there are pictures of musical artists that he’s worked with or talked with, showing his past as a singer of a four-member group, Twenty4seveN, based in Cincinnati. 

“It kind of shows ‘I’m no different than you,’” he said.

After performing two years in the music industry, Dibble was ready for change.

“I have a buddy living out here who said, ‘why don’t you start in law enforcement?’” So, he moved.

Although Dibble now wears police blue, he hasn’t walked entirely away from music. In a recent Murray City Police Department lip sync video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OShxMZt6pOY), Dibble is front and center, leading the department in the performance.

While Murray Department typically rotates its SROs every five years, Dibble isn’t sure his next move. He does have dreams of being a pilot.

“I do this to give back to the community,” Dibble said. “I feel like I’m doing something important for the kids so they can reflect back later in life and had a good few years in my seventh, eighth and ninth grades. I think more people need to understand the job of a SRO. We’re not there just to be police officers; we’re not running radars down the hallways. We’re there to help kids in any way possible and let them know, you can come talk to me even if it’s not even police-related or criminal-related, you can just come talk to me and have a conversation.”

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