BOARDMAN — Three men with unique personalities patrol the halls of three Boardman schools.
Towering over the students at Boardman Central Intermediate School is Matt Sell.
Phil Merlo oftentimes can be seen throwing a basketball at Boardman Glenwood Junior High, or sitting with a group of students during their lunch period.
Handing out “fist bumps” and high fives, met with witty teenage comments at Boardman High School, Paul Poulos keeps a watchful eye.
All three are Boardman police officers who are also school resource officers, and all three men, along with their supervisor and school administration, agree they are the best fit for their school.
“You need a unique personality to do this at each of their schools,” said Sgt. Michael Sweeney, supervisor of the SRO program.
“I couldn’t (work) anywhere else. I need to be able to have that banter” that teenagers like to give, Poulos said. “I can function on a teenage level,” he added, noting that he enjoys the teen-favorite language of sarcasm.
Poulos knows many of the students at the high school, which has a population between 1,300 and 1,400.
With 10 years of Army active duty on his resume, including two tours overseas, he applies his varied tactical training to his role at the high school where he’s been an SRO for six years.
“I deploy” to the school, Poulos said, where he’s able to help the students and give them guidance by acting as big brother or, for many, a father figure.
“It’s a sensitive environment,” he noted. “You have to be able to know the kids are going to be kind of fiery with you. Sarcastic.”
The playful back-and-forth isn’t as prevelant with Sell’s group.
Just after Thanksgiving, Sell was welcomed as a full-time SRO at Boardman Central, where he also assists in teaching a class called “Too Good for Drugs.”
The curriculum, he said, discusses drugs, alcohol and peer pressure.
When the position became open for resource officer with grade 4-6 students, Sell said he decided it was time to put his education and law enforcement degree to use.
Superintendent Tim Saxton said that besides safety, it is important for the students as well as the public to understand that SROs are supposed to help students learn. “They’re not walking the halls, but interacting. And they teach.”
To ensure officers are paired with the best fit of students, Saxton explained that administration from Boardman Local Schools works with the Boardman Police Department. “We look at personalities,” he said.
There are a couple of key factors when considering an officer for the role, Sweeney explained.
An officer must have a minimum of three years’ experience as an officer with Boardman police. Sweeney said this is so an officer with some experience in the community is placed in the school setting. High instances of sick or personal days are taken into consideration, and vacation is expected to match the schools’ schedules.
“This is an investment” for the future, Saxton said.
By having a full-time officer at the schools, Saxton explained that when a new officer is hired to patrol, the district helps the department pay the new, lower salary to offset costs. A hiring grant from the U.S. Department of Justice is utilized to help fund the program, he added.
“Something we take pride in is you aren’t going to see our officers sit at the front desk,” Sweeney said.
While Sell doesn’t sit at a desk until the end of the day, he said that brief time, which he calls “office life,” has been an adjustment.
Walking around the school countless times, Sell said he was used to sitting in a patrol car, which he did for 14 years working overnight. Now, he “makes time” to make and review notes.
Although a relatively small amount of time goes toward desk duty, Merlo is known for throwing a football with students while still in his uniform, or changing into civilian clothes to shoot hoops.
He was on the road for 21 years and became “really interested” in becoming an SRO.
“Little did I know it would be nothing like I thought it would be,” but in a good way, he said.
Through SRO training, Merlo said he realizes that kids at the junior high age are still growing mentally, as their brains are still forming — leaving them unable to help being impulsive. “I take that into account,” he said, along with trying to remember what he was like at that age.
The SROs become engrained in the school culture, studying the kids so that they can identify what kind of day a student is having.
“If a kid walks by and doesn’t do the normal fist bump or has their head down,” Merlo said he knows to check in on the student. “We know them well enough.”
The interaction the officers have built with their students, Sweeney said, is “amazing … I couldn’t be prouder if I tried.”
Should any type of situation occur at the schools, the resource officers are proactively contacting Sweeney while diffusing the situation.
Merlo and Poulos each said that in their mind, having interaction with youths as a mentor as well as a member of law enforcement helps intervene if the student may be on a negative path.
“Maybe if we can divert them just a little bit (at the schools), they won’t be out there when they’re 30, 40 years old, looking at prison,” Poulos said.