School resource officer develops friendship with students, staff
Walking the hallways: Cpl. Mitch Schelinder with the Cape Carteret Police Department is the School Resource Officer at White Oak Elementary School. (Dylan Ray photo).
CAPE CARTERET — As School Resource Officer Mitch Schelinder patrolled the halls of White Oak Elementary School one morning before Christmas break, dozens of children walked up to him for a high-five or fist bump on their way to and from class.
Although his main purpose is to protect the students and staff against potential threats or to diffuse an angry parent situation, “Officer Mitch” has quickly proven he is much more than police presence – he is also a friend to those at the school.
“It’s not a job for me, it’s fun,” he said.
Officer Schelinder, a corporal with the Cape Carteret Police Department, enjoys his time spent in the school. “I’ve got to say, I’ve never had a bad day working here,” he said. “I can’t say that about working the road.”
Out of more than 85 staff members, there are just three other men who are on the school grounds, a custodian and two physical education teachers, according to Officer Schelinder. So he became a mentor for students who may not have a strong male presence in their home lives.
There are roughly 825 students at the school, which teaches pre-K through fifth grade, and Officer Schelinder knows nearly all of them by their first names. He also knows all of the staff members, who greet him warmly when he passes by or enters a classroom.
When he isn’t guiding school traffic in the morning and afternoon, patrolling the sprawling school grounds, or teaching the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) course to fifth-graders, he said he tries to remain a silent partner in the school and bring a smile to the children’s faces.
“From 7:15 (a.m.) to 7:55 (a.m.), I do school traffic control,” he said. “Then I check emails in the office and then it’s just about being invisible all day.” Officer Schelinder tries to not distract the students while they are in class, so they can focus.
On April 1, 2014, he became the SRO at White Oak and quickly adjusted to his repeated role as “Officer Mitch.”
Officer Schelinder was previously the SRO at White Oak Elementary from 2007, when he first joined the Cape Carteret Police Department part-time, to 2010, when funding was cut and the position was no longer available.
In October 2013, the Carteret County School District applied for an SRO grant from the Department of Instruction that would pay for the majority of a full-time SRO at the elementary school.
In January 2014, the school district found out it had been awarded the grant for the town of Cape Carteret for one year, with the possibility of it being extended for two more years.
The grant has paid $30,800 for the first year, and between Cape Carteret, Cedar Point, Emerald Isle, Peletier and Bogue – the five towns that make up the school’s main student enrollment – the remaining $14,000 of his annual salary has been financed.
The County Board of Commissioners denied a request to help with funding the SRO, even though there are a number of students from Stella, the unincorporated part of western Carteret County. This lack of involvement frustrated elected officials in western Carteret, but the Cape Carteret Board of Commissioners agreed to supply the remaining money in order to have an officer at the school.
Cape Carteret Mayor Dave Fowler said at that time the elementary students there were the “must vulnerable citizens” and it was up to the towns to protect those who could not protect themselves.
The White Oak Parent-Teacher Organization first approached the towns about an SRO at White Oak Elementary in January 2013, roughly a month after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where on Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at the school.
Terri Brett, who became the new White Oak Elementary principal in July, said it is fortunate Officer Schelinder is around to protect the school. She noted he is the only SRO in an elementary school in Carteret County. The three county high schools have SROs.
She said Officer Schelinder is a reassuring presence in the school because he is able to diffuse tense parents and other situations.
“That (his presence in the office), a lot of times, discourages parents that might want to take it to another level, when they see that our school resource officer is here to stand by and intervene as necessary,” she said. “But at the same time, a lot of our students and parents know Officer Mitch as very friendly and a part of our staff, and that is a good thing.”
She said the entire student body and faculty feels safer, knowing that Officer Schelinder is just a radio call away and that they would not have to call the police department in the event of an emergency.
Officer Schelinder said he has never had to arrest anybody at the school, but he must always be ready for various situations that could arise.
“I sit at home and think of worst-case scenarios, things you don’t want to talk about, but need to be prepared for,” he said.
He has completed the required 200 hours of his SRO training, but continues to take new classes, either online or at the N.C. Justice Academy in Salemburg. He said one of the new classes offered this year includes a hostage negotiation course.
He said the SRO situations at schools have changed drastically since the April 20, 1999, shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 12 students and a teacher were killed by two students. Originally, in a situation like that, you were supposed to wait for additional police presence to show up, he said. But since the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, he would be responsible to move directly to the situation without waiting for backup, if a similar event would happen here, he said.
Thankfully, the only reason he has had to remove his handcuffs from his belt is to show curious students, like one fifth-grader on the playground on that Tuesday morning before the holiday break.
“Do you have your handcuffs,” she asked before requesting to see them.
“I’m at an elementary school, I always have my handcuffs. You guys get rowdy,” he joked.