NEW LENOX – Hilary Lithgow, a school resource officer at Lincoln-Way Central High School, is more than just a uniform.
As a Will County sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school, Lithgow’s job is to keep the students and staff safe, but she’s also there to be a resource to students. Sometimes that can mean answering questions about Spanish, which she speaks, or how to handle a traffic ticket.
“I’m a resource to these students for anything and everything they can possibly think of,” she said.
Law enforcement and school district officials say school resource officers can benefit schools as they can help students feel more comfortable about police, as well as increase information sharing needed to solve crimes or threats.
That’s part of why Joliet Public Schools District 86 is seeking funding to bring a resource officer program to the district’s junior high schools.
“Anytime we can set up a situation for our youth to have a positive interaction with a police officer, we’re helping ourselves down the road,” said Theresa Rouse, the district’s superintendent.
Rouse brought up the idea several months ago with district officials to work with the Joliet Police Department to get the program going. She said she’s still looking for funding to help jump-start the program.
“It could be a huge win across the system, but we need helping funding it,” Rouse said.
The district had the program several years ago, but it was eliminated because of budget cuts. The cost to bring back school resource officers in the district would be $150,000 an officer.
A similar situation has happened over the years with the county sheriff’s own school resource officer program, which was established in 2000. The program used to be federally funded but the sheriff’s office is continuing it.
The sheriff’s school resource officer program covered districts such as Lincoln-Way District 210, Summit Hill District 161, Plainfield District 202 and Fairmont District 89, but has now narrowed to the three remaining schools in District 210.
When District 89 lost its resource officer last year because of limited funding, it raised fears with the district’s teachers union, which appreciated how the officer kept the teachers safe. The district later brought on a student resource supervisor who is similar to the resource officer.
Lithgow said that when she first arrived at Central in 2014, she felt like the students were looking at her as if they were in trouble. But the more visible she was to them and the more she interacted, the more comfortable they became with her, she said.
“The uniform is scary for some people,” Lithgow said.
She said she begins her day securing the building, but she’ll also roam through the school so students can see and talk to her. Sometimes students will ask her about becoming a police officer themselves.
Before Lithgow became an school resource officer, she worked patrol for six years, including in the Lincoln-Way area. She said her goal in serving as a school resource officer is to give people in and out of the school a positive view of the police.
Rob Schiffbauer, the district’s personnel director, said the relationship between the district and the county sheriff’s office has been great. The resource officers help with crowd and traffic control at events and assist in potential threats to the schools.
“It’s interesting to see some of the kids that gravitate toward the SROs. … For the kids, it’s probably a greater resource for them, just because it gives them a little bit different perspective on the role of a police officer,” Schiffbauer said.