By Kelly Mae Ross
Buena Vista schools are in danger of losing their police officer next year.
If the city can’t come up with the money to pay for the position, called a resource officer, Officer Chris Wheeler will have to pack up the high school office that has been his home base for the past three years.
A state grant provided most of the funding for Wheeler’s position until now. That grant expires at the end of the school year.
Khea Morton, a senior at Parry McCluer High School, said she believes it’s important for Wheeler to remain in the school. She said Wheeler helped her deal with years of bullying and has helped other kids cope with similar problems.
“Officer Wheeler usually would just let me sit in his office and we would talk about TV and [stuff] until I calmed down,” said Morton. “That way I wouldn’t get in trouble, because there were many times that I almost got in trouble.”
Morton now laughs when she talks about how close she came to getting into fights with the girl who bullied her. She credited Wheeler with helping her learn to ignore her tormenter, who graduated last year.
Fights used to be much more common at Parry McCluer High School than they are now. Wheeler said that the year before he became resource officer, there were 26 fights at the high school. In the three years that Wheeler has worked in the school, there have been a total of three fights.
Wheeler does more than break up fights, though. He works to protect students and faculty members and educate them on legal issues such as online bullying and dating violence.
Wheeler begins each day at the high school, but he sometimes makes trips to other schools in the district or to area homes to pick up kids who are skipping school. He said there is no such thing as a typical day for him.
Morton isn’t the only student at Parry McCluer High School who wants Wheeler to stay put.
“Somebody could bring a gun or somebody could bring a knife,” said freshman Jasmine Carter. “Somebody could take advantage of not having a resource officer here.”
“He’s been there for us since I came here,” said senior Ashleigh Lilley. “He’s like the coolest cop I know.”
At the Jan. 26 Buena Vista School Board meeting, five girls, including Morton, stood alongside Wheeler in front of the board to explain why they thought it was important that Wheeler’s position be saved.
Schools Superintendent Rebecca Gates told the board she “supports a resource officer 100 percent.” She has set aside $30,000 in her proposed budget to go toward the cost of a resource officer next year.
But the city would need to chip in another $25,000 for salary, a patrol car and other support for the position, Gates said.
Mayor Frankie Hogan said in an email that the City Council has not yet started working on or discussing the school budget.
The city budget, which includes its contribution to the school budget, will be adopted on May 10, according to the budget calendar from the BV Finance Department.
Applying for more grant money isn’t a possibility for the district, said Janice Waddy, who oversees grant management for the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. The Department of Criminal Justice Services program that provides money for resource officer positions around the state — including Buena Vista’s — has been scaled back, she said.
There won’t be any state or federal money to fund the program next year, but it might be revived in the future, Waddy said.
According to a 2012 survey from criminal justice services, 89 percent of school districts in the state used school resource officers during the 2009-2010 school year.
Many of those districts, including Rockbridge County, continue to pay for their officer positions without grant money.
Wheeler said he knows the school board and the city are “in a pickle” when it comes to the budget, but he doesn’t think the schools should be without an on-site officer.
“The door is always open for the kids or whoever to come in … to talk,” he said. “They report stuff and we can stop it before it even happens inside the building.”
Donna Frazier, a business teacher at Parry McCluer High School, agrees.
“In this building he walks very softly with a big heart,” she said. “These students really trust him a lot.”
Frazier said Wheeler is able to devote time and attention to kids who might otherwise lose interest in school. She said she fears what will happen to those kids if Wheeler can’t come back next year.
“The kids that are going to fall through the cracks, that we’re going to lose — it hurts me because our society loses when we lose them,” she said. “We all lose when these kids can’t find their place.”