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Assigned to special duty with the school district, an officer is responsible for more than community policing
“I think the greatest challenge in this job is being able to strike a balance between being someone who helps nurture our children and being a police officer at the same time.”
Mario Ybarra asked to be considered for the position of school resource officer, a job shared between the Dilley Police Department and the school district, and one that would require approval from both administrations if he were to be given the task.
That task, it soon turned out, would be a daunting one but rewarding nonetheless.
Ybarra’s application was approved by his boss, Dilley Police Chief Homer Delgado, and Dilley ISD Superintendent Dr. Emilio Castro in March this year. The Hondo native who graduated from the Southwest Texas Junior College Law Enforcement Academy in 2018 would serve not only as the liaison between the school and the police department but also as a full-time duty officer on each of the campuses.
Two months later, tragedy struck in a nearby community. A gunman gained access to a classroom building at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde and murdered 19 children and two teachers. It was one of the deadliest school shooting incidents in the nation’s history, and it would affect every school, every parent, teacher and child for months to come.
Its repercussions continue to echo through the school hallways and the consciousness of every community member to this day.
The children’s safety in the educational environment remains of paramount importance, and it is the duty of the school resource officer to ensure that security standards are not compromised, that the school remains a safe haven for learning, and that the children are shielded from harm.
Ybarra’s mother is a teacher at Dilley ISD. The officer is familiar with the ins and outs of the district, the demands that education puts on those responsible for it, and the multitude of ways in which an adult can foster a nurturing environment for the community’s most valuable resources.
Serving as a law enforcement presence on campus is only a fraction of the task.
Chief Delgado regards SRO Ybarra as “a perfect fit” for the job. The officer promptly underwent specialized training in student discipline, handling minors, and campus security.
When the new academic year began in August, many students returned to school with misgivings about their surroundings and the people tasked with protecting them. The horror of what had happened in Uvalde was at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Ybarra was faced with ensuring that every hallway, every door, every access point at the district’s three campuses was secure and would remain so; that strict campus entry procedures were followed to the letter, and that any threats – no matter how trivial they could seem – were handled firmly and swiftly.
“What we were dealing with was a population of young and impressionable minds, all grouped together, some of them with fears or attitudes that might seem irrational to an adult,” Ybarra says. “We have to understand that children can say and do things that don’t always make sense to us as adults, but that children sometimes react in unexpected ways because their emotions are elevated.”
The school resource officer is among the first to note that issues of aggression, bullying and random threats are often handled internally by the school district, where de-escalation techniques are put into practice and conflict resolution aims to restore normalcy.
Law enforcement, however, has to play a role when there is evidence of an offense, and where a threat against others is made and requires a response.
Such has been the case on at least three occasions in the past few months, according to Chief Delgado, who says his department will treat every threat equally, as there can be no leeway when the safety and wellbeing of the young and innocent are at stake.
“When we approach a situation in which a minor has made a threat, we have to appreciate how to relate to the young mindset in these situations,” Ybarra says. “These are basically rooted in issues related to their guidance. If they are troubled, we need to intervene. The school needs to deal with children’s issues, but as law enforcement officers we have to determine if there is a credible threat. Are they looking for attention? Are they frustrated?
“We have to read that in each situation,” he says. “It’s an assessment that takes their young emotional state into consideration. But we take every one of them seriously.”
Ybarra has undertaken more than 850 hours of training in his job. Classroom and online instruction for a school resource officer, however, does not compare to the value of interacting with students, teachers and parents daily.
“I start my day at the crosswalk,” the officer says. “I handle traffic, pedestrian safety, parking issues… There are a lot of people and a lot of cars all going to the same place at the same time. It requires managing. We have to be eyes and ears for the children, and we have to be visible and protective of them.”
Once all the children are settled into their desks, the school resource officer begins his rounds. He visits each campus in rotation, tries every door, checks every hallway.
“The doors have to be locked,” he says. “No one should be able to get into the campus, and definitely no one should be able to get into a classroom once the kids are in there.”
Ybarra balks at the thought that children might consider themselves prisoners in the school building.
“It’s about reassuring them,” he says. “We don’t want anyone thinking they’re imprisoned. We want them to understand the positive aspects of security. It’s not about locking them in. It’s about keeping them safe and protecting the environment where they can learn.”
In the event of a crisis, at the very least a conflict of any kind, all school administrators and other key personnel have a direct line of communication to the resource officer. Response time for the municipal police department to dispatch additional manpower currently stands at between two and three minutes, of which the police chief is proud. Delgado adds that all other law enforcement agencies in the region, from county sheriff’s deputies to Border Patrol and Highway Patrol, and those in neighboring communities, can be reached immediately for dispatch in the event of crisis escalation.
For his part, the school resource officer is comforted by the knowledge that he has a wealth of additional forces behind him if the need arises.
“We have reinforced this communication since Uvalde happened,” the police chief says. “We have a large communication network. We’ve improved on it since May and we have improved our response time and our capabilities.”
Ybarra is silent on what those capabilities are, but stresses that the community must be aware of the level of protection that law enforcement is willing and ready to bring to the school.
Daily issues, however, rarely rise to the occasion that would require additional force.
“Bullying and fighting… those are issues that we see between children whose emotions are on edge,” Ybarra says. “Intervention is critical, and that’s part of basic campus security.
“In cases of fighting, yes, the school administration deals with it first,” he says. “Parents have to give consent for me to intervene, to begin talking to a minor in those situations. A school resource officer doesn’t get involved until it’s identified as an offense. In those situations, we get in touch with the Frio County Juvenile Probation Office and we may take a minor into custody.”
The school resource officer hesitates to respond to an ongoing debate in Texas over whether schools should allow teachers to carry concealed firearms. The topic has resurfaced repeatedly, and with more frequency since the Uvalde massacre.
Ybarra is not convinced that an armed teacher may have been able to intercept the Uvalde gunman, and he does not presume to re-analyze the case or predict the outcome of an ongoing investigation. He looks within himself to find an answer, and he finds himself saddened that current events have reached a point at which arming teachers is considered a viable proposition.
“I would not be in favor of it, to be honest,” he finally says. “A teacher’s job is to teach. A teacher might not be able to act with deadly force in a situation like that. Can you ask a teacher in all honesty whether he or she would be able to do that to a child or young adult? I don’t know if I can ask a teacher to do that.
“My job is to help the teachers protect and nurture our children,” Ybarra says. “Arming teachers creates an atmosphere in which people are going to wonder, ‘Is my teacher carrying a gun right now?’ And I think that takes away from our teachers’ real mission, which is to educate our children.”
Interaction between the officer and the community helps strengthen bonds, reinforce channels of communication and promotes greater awareness of the school’s and the officer’s duties towards the children, Ybarra says.
“I think, probably, the best opportunity to reach out has to be at major school events,” he says, “and that’s going to be the football games and other activities where the community really comes to the school. That’s where I have a chance to get to know people, to meet and talk with parents. “Yes, it also gives me a chance to high-five the kids I see on campus every day,” he laughs. “It’s a careful balance between community contact and law enforcement vigilance. They need to know I’m here for them, that I care about them, and that I’m watching over them as well…
“They’re the reason we do this.”