PERRYDALE — As he patrols the hallways of the Perrydale School District, Thomas Hutchison is greeted with fist bumps and hails of “Hey Deputy Tom.”
In his three years as Polk County Sheriff Office’s School Resource Officer, Hutchison has continued the rapport with the students built by his predecessor Deputy Gregg Caudill (since promoted to sergeant). One student finds a sympathetic ear in Hutchison with how much she hates taking a test. He assures her she’ll do fine if she does her best.
Just five years into his tenure on the PCSO staff, signing up as their SRO presented a new challenge for Hutchison that he couldn’t pass up.
“Growing up, I always had an SRO in school,” said Hutchison, a graduate of Dallas High School. “Now that I look back on it, he was a great mentor and example I still talk to today. Having that opportunity was a chance to push myself outside my comfort zone, and build relationships with the community, parents, staff.”
Hutchison said the funding for the county’s SRO comes completely out of sheriff’s office budget. In 2015, voters approved a five-year Public Safety Levy (at .45 cents per $1,000 assessed value on homes in Polk County). The SRO position was among the 22 full-time employees the levy paid for, between the sheriff’s office (patrol and the jail) and the Polk County District Attorney’s Office in addition to the rental of two juvenile detention beds.
“School districts don’t pay anything for it. It’s important to Sheriff (Mark) Garton to be there in the schools, be a role model, have those positive interactions with the youth and other community members,” Hutchison said.
He admits it’s rather ironic he ended up as another positive influence on current students as an SRO, when as a youth, he really had no plans to pursue a career in law enforcement.
Hutchison said he was a cadet in high school. He then continued on to volunteer with Search and Rescue, then as a volunteer reserve deputy.
“It just kind of happened. I never really thought of it as a career as a kid,” Hutchison recalled. “I had a friend who was a cadet and brought me into it. It kind of grew my passion for it.”
He then left Dallas to join the U.S. Army for four years.
“I drove boats, I was confused,” Hutchison joked.
Then he returned full time to the community and rejoined the PCSO.
During his 10-hour shift, Hutchison splits his time amongst five school campuses in three separate school districts — the Perrydale campus; Falls City with its K-8 and high schools; the Luckiamute Charter School; and the Luckiamute Valley Charter School Pedee campus in Bridgeport.
He sees his chief role as to just be a presence. After checking in with the staff to see if they have anything to report or talk to him about, he peeks into classrooms to ensure he doesn’t interrupt lessons or lectures.
“I’m just showing up, being a part of the community, part of the school. Talking to kids, pop into the classrooms, see what they are learning, play with them on the playground,” Hutchison said.
“That’s one thing I really like about our program is the enforcement action I have to take is pretty minimal. A lot of times I get to be there and be a role model, be someone these kids can see, break down the law enforcement barriers. Just having a good time, playing and hanging out. That’s honestly a big part of my job, being there,” he added.
Sometimes, however, Hutchison is more than a representative of law enforcement. Rather, he’s a confidant for insecure students.
“There is one that will always stick in my mind,” Hutchison recalled. “A girl in one of the schools who had been sexually abused by an adult perpetrator outside of school, she had been interviewed by detectives, by the Liberty House in Salem. Eventually she just asked to talk to me at the school, and kind of disclosed what had happened to her. It had been the first time she had disclosed anything.”
Hutchison was eventually able to talk her into speaking with detectives about what had happened and get the ball rolling to where that suspect was arrested for the crimes.
“She even told me later she felt comfortable with me. I think that’s just from, again, not being there as enforcement, rather as a mentor, and getting to know these kids before it becomes a negative interaction. They have all the positive interactions to build on,” he added.
Perrydale Superintendent Dan Dugan said that’s why their school district was really excited when Polk County moved forward with that initiative to have school resource officers in Polk County.
“Our kids have really good relations with Dept. Caudill and Dept. Hutchison. The kids have that relationship they build, that camaraderie that they value. Both of them are professionals, so if there is a situation, they’re going to address it that way,” Dugan said. “Sometimes kids break the rules, cross the line, you have somebody in the school setting, or deputy who comes and helps out with that situation that’s important. But also, the education piece. The kids are able to learn about the situation, what consequences may be, try to be preventative with those things, too. So, we try to be proactive having the sheriff’s office in our school. It has been a positive overall. We realize it’s a mixed bag in other parts of the state, but in Polk County, we support that.”
For example, the Salem-Keizer School Board recently voted to terminate its SRO program and the Dallas School District hasn’t had one for more than a decade.
Hutchison figured it’s just a matter of the general public getting past negative preconceptions.
“When people think of law enforcement, they think of enforcement actions we typically take, have the authority to take,” Hutchison explained. “They think of the negative interactions we have in the community, arresting people or showing up to the worst day in people’s lives. For our program, it’s centered completely opposite around that — building positive relationships and being a role model. I think a lot of it comes from, I guess, their lack of knowledge what we’re trying to do specific to our program.”
The way Hutchison sees it, schools are the center of communities. And community policing is being a primary component in law enforcement.
“It needs to start at schools. Not only am I having positive interactions with students every day here, I’m having interactions with the staff, community members, parents. So, it’s a lot bigger than just the school itself,” he said.
“(Being an SRO) wasn’t quite my expectation what it actually is. It’s been a huge learning curve,” Hutchison added. “So far, I’d say, it’s been the most rewarding part of my career. Absolutely.”