School officers use their judgment to break up fights

Published 12:23 am Thursday, October 27, 2011

The resource officers serving Suffolk’s middle and high schools have an arsenal of ways to handle difficult situations, like fights, in their schools.

That arsenal includes pepper spray, a Suffolk police official said Wednesday. Its use in two incidents in Norfolk middle schools in the past week has come under fire from Norfolk officials, including the City Council.

Maj. Larry Wilson of the Suffolk Police Department said Suffolk’s resource officers have varying levels of force they can use to break up a fight, with the lightest being their presence and the heaviest being the use of pepper spray or a Taser.

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“Each situation dictates the level of force necessary and the level of force used,” he said.

The school resource officers in Suffolk, who are sworn members of the department, serve at the schools to assist the administration and staff with security issues while developing good relationships with the city’s youth.

Each middle and high school has one assigned resource officer. The high schools also have additional officers hired by the school division.

As a rule, Wilson said, resource officers aren’t always the ones that respond to disputes in the schools, but they handle it when they have to.

“If they are present when the fight breaks out, they will respond to it,” he said.

Occasionally, nearby administrators or staff members respond to the altercation, but they still have the ability to call for the officer’s help.

When the resource officer does have the duty to stop a fight, Wilson said, he uses his training and experience to judge the right thing to do.

While he couldn’t recall any instances in which pepper spray has been used at a school or school event to break up a fight, he said, it would not be against Suffolk Police Department policy to use the spray in schools.

However, Wilson said, pepper spray usually is not the best option because of the crowds around the brawls.

“You have to take into consideration, are you going to spray two people fighting in a crowd of 50,” Wilson said.

He said the officers have different options to quell the fights, including using their voice and separating the combatants, but it is up to the individual officer how he or she responds.

While all fights can be serious, Wilson said, he thinks the school division and police department’s relationship has reduced the issues at the schools.

“Suffolk Public Schools and Suffolk Police Department work very closely, and I believe as a result of that relationship the problems that occur in our schools are very minimal,” he said.