Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series on the various types of officers from the Phoenix Police Department assigned to protect Ahwatukee Foothills. Part two on patrol officers will appear Friday, May 14, or visit ahwatukee.com.
For Phoenix Police Officer Mike Leon his days at Altadeña Middle School are made up of little things: looking to see if someone is lurking off the school grounds on Desert Foothills Parkway, watching for a student who suddenly seems withdrawn and depressed and taking the time to listen to students who need to talk.
As he watches students being dropped off in the morning and picked up in the afternoon, he surveys the swirl of activity, just in case a child custody battle or some other disagreement ends up on the school’s steps.
And in this post-Columbine era, he has no illusions when it comes to violence and schools.
"I know I’ll be the first targeted because I’m a threat," Leon said as if it’s no big deal.
Welcome to the world of the School Resource Officer, where regular police officers – Leon is a 24-year veteran of the department – are assigned to each of the middle schools in Ahwatukee Foothills.
Their primary mission is simple: "Kids should come to school and feel safe – focus on academics and have a blast and not worry about safety: I’ll worry about that," Leon said.
But the assignment could be fading away.
Leon was an SRO at Mountain Pointe High School before the Tempe Union High School District lost a grant several years ago. Now, neither Mountain Pointe nor Desert Visa have SROs.
And he’s not sure what will happen after summer recess because the Arizona Legislature has cut funding for the school safety program state-wide, reducing the amount of money available for SROs by 40 percent.
The loss of SROs in Ahwatukee Foothills, and across the state, would be a blow to the schools, educators said.
"We very much appreciate school resource officers," said Nancy Dudenhoefer, a spokeswoman for the Kyrene School District. "They teach law-related curriculum; their presence deters children from doing things they shouldn’t do; and they are role models."
And if funding should dry up?
"We’ll have to look at alternatives," Dudenhoefer said.
Leon is typical of SROs in Ahwatukee Foothills and Arizona. He teaches 180 hours a year on civics and law (this year he is focusing on drugs and bullying), is often the first to instigate child abuse investigations, answers legal questions for students, parents and teachers, makes home visits and deals with truant students and their parents and provides information to other officers and detectives when it comes to students and their possible involvement in criminal activity.
And in his free time, Leon and all the SROs in Ahwatukee Foothills respond to hot traffic on the police radio that he carries everywhere.
"I’m ready to go," Leon said. He has helped search for gunmen near the school, been first to respond to collisions and is ready at a moment’s notice to jump into the squad car and respond to crimes in progress near the school.
"We’re a resource for the community and law enforcement," he said.