A cop in class: School officer cements positive ties

By: 
JENNY GESSAMAN
Reporter

School Resource Officer Levi Talkington plays gaga ball with Highland Park Elementary students during afternoon recess Friday.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

With tan pants and a collared polo, Levi Talkington blends right in with the staff of Fergus High School. Any more than a glance, though, and a person might notice the Lewistown Police Department insignia on his shirt, or the gun holstered at his side.

No, he’s not undercover, and no, no one’s is in trouble … usually. Talkington is simply there for his job as a school resource officer.

 

A different beat

Talkington is a sergeant with the Lewistown Police Department, a career he started 19 years ago. For the majority of the last four years, he has also been a school resource officer.

“That is pretty much my main job, where I’m dedicated to the school,” he said.

Talkington explained his job cycles with the school year. He spends the school year, about nine months, as a resource officer. The other three months are spent as a patrol cop.

A different schedule doesn’t mean different requirements for Talkington, though. He still has to meet continuing education hours. As a school resource officer, he did extra work, about 40 hours worth.

When it’s open, officers apply for the position. Talkington applied in 2014, in large part due to the effects he could have.

“It was a different opportunity,” he said. “For most officers, large caseloads mean a small percentage of time is spent interacting with youth. School resource officers spend most of their time dealing with students, a chance other officers don’t necessarily have.”

For students, Talkington added, these out-of-school encounters could leave an abrupt first impression. He liked the prospect of a job that showed that police were a safe and approachable resource for kids.

“For younger students, their first interaction with law enforcement is the school resource officer, and that officer works to make it positive,” he said.

 

The goal

Talkington’s days aren’t typical to the Lewistown Police Department, but that doesn’t mean they’re not full.

A school resource officer’s work, he explained, is based around three roles. The first is as a law enforcement educator or guest lecturer. Talkington presents at a teacher’s request, but also has annual talks he gives each fall.

“The Eddie Eagle gun safety program is one the younger students really like,” he said.

Junior high students often learn about drug awareness, while high-school students find out about search and seizure.

Talkington’s second role is that of an informal counselor.

“The principal or school can ask advice, or sometimes I speak with students on general questions about the law or the criminal justice system,” Talkington said.

It’s common for Talkington to clear up misconceptions, and a few students have even asked about careers in law enforcement. His last role has the most obvious tie to the police department, though.

“It’s the law enforcement aspect of it: Providing a safe learning environment for students,” he said.

The idea, Talkington said, is for a school resource officer to use all of these roles to foster secure schools and good relationships. For him, it all hinges on positive interactions with students. Unlike most of the force, Talkington considers his work preemptive.

“A lot of the time, they deal with the arrests, where I deal with the youth parole department,” he said. “They deal with traffic citations, where I deal with educating students on what those citations are.”

 

The day-to-day

As the district’s only school resource officer, Talkington is responsible for 1,203 students spread across five schools. His office is at Fergus High School, but he visits each facility at least once a week.

Part of an average day might include dealing with school crime, which usually isn’t too severe, according to Talkington.

“A lot of it has to do with bullying and social media, sexting, drug crimes, assaults and thefts,” he said.

Talkington has seen a rise in incidents such as sexting, or the exchange of sexually explicit text messages, since he started four years ago. He thinks it’s a sign of something positive, though.

“There’s been an increase with reported crime in schools, but I think a lot of it is students are coming in and reporting more,” he said.

That communication is something Talkington’s worked on as a school resource officer.

“The biggest challenge was having the interactions with students where they felt comfortable enough to even speak to me,” he said.

It’s now become one of favorite things. Talkington’s walls display a mix of art projects, thank-you cards and personal notes. On Jan. 9, for National Law Enforcement Day, he received hundreds of brightly colored doughnuts, most with personal messages scrawled on their backs.

“The best parts [of the job] are the students themselves,” he said. “We have great students here in Lewistown, and that gets overshadowed.”

Fergus High School Principal Jeff Elliot thinks that happens to the benefit of a school resource officer, too.

“The main thing that it does is, it alleviates a lot problems before they happen,” he said. “With the visual of an officer in a school, I think students realize there are consequences.”

Elliot said Talkington has made students more comfortable in reaching out for help, especially for anything bully related. One of the biggest benefits of a school resource officer has been for teachers, though.

“In other schools I worked at, there was a lot of insubordination from students to staff members,” he said.

As much as Talkington improves the present-day Fergus High, Elliot is also aware of how his school’s past has created tension eased by Talkington’s presence.

“The unsaid issue is the school shooting in 1986,” he said. “[A school resource officer] is an important piece to have here at Fergus High School because of that. It provides a level of security, not only for us and the students, but for parents and community members, too.”

All considered, that makes a school resource officer a necessity for Elliot.

“It’s a service we would hate to ever loose,” he said.

That, however, is a possibility.

With budget cuts hitting the school system, District Superintendent Thom Peck said there have been talks about cutting the school resource officer position.

“We’re looking at options with the city, and at how the school district helps to finance that position,” he said.

The district covers the salary during the nine months of the school year, while the City of Lewistown covers the three summer months. Peck stressed the possible elimination was not reflect of the position’s importance.

“We’re looking at cuts, at where we’re going to have reduced funding and at how we’ll have to reduce our budget,” he said.

For Peck, the school board and the district’s principals and vice principals, those decisions are led by one question.

“What would affect kids the least, especially in the classroom?” Peck said. “If we’re really, really going to improve, it will be what happens at the classroom level that does that. We’ve tried to approach these cuts by staying away from the classroom as much as we can.”

Several key factors, including staff health insurance, are still being solidified, but Peck expects the district to have a better idea of what will be cut in March.

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