By Mary Spicer
As Meadville Police Department’s newly-appointed school resource officer, one of biggest issues Nick Mogel finds himself confronting these days is mistaken ideas about why he’s there.
“The biggest misperception about the school resource officer is that I’m here because there are so many fights going on and a lot of drug activity,” Mogel explained midway through his second week on the job. “That’s really not the case.”
Crawford Central School Board member Glenn Tuttle has publicly supported the perception. “We already have blood all over the place — we need somebody there,” Tuttle said during a recent Crawford Central School Board meeting. During a follow-up interview, “I have two children, a junior and a sophomore, in the high school right now and they’ve seen more than what kids should see in high school, both in and out of the immediate environment,” Tuttle explained. “They’ve seen physical assault. Lots of violence. There’s no kind way of putting it. This isn’t just simple schoolyard fights. It isn’t what it was 30 years ago — we’re talking about highly-violent activities by a large group of students.”
In what he said was just one example involving the MASH cafeteria, Tuttle recounted the story of a female student who was being beaten by a male student when a group of female students entered the room and took over the attack.
With information about many cases involving student offenders protected by the juvenile justice system and school districts concerned about their legal obligation to protect the privacy of students and employees, empirical evidence is incomplete. However, what Tuttle is claiming is not what Mogel has seen thus far.
A veteran Meadville Police Department officer, Mogel is assigned to the Meadville Area Senior High School-Middle School complex throughout the school year.
In constant communication with MPD dispatchers, “I’ll take every call, whether it’s an assault, drugs or somebody being harassed,” Mogel said. “Everything from the high school or the middle school comes to me.”
Because of the number of different locations that may be involved in “school-related” incidents, Assistant Chief Mike Tautin estimates that approximately 50 calls came from the MASH/MAMS complex to the police department during the first 10 months of the calendar year 2013.
“Fifty calls to the police is too many, but they were not all made during the same month,” Superintendent Charlie Heller said during a recent interview.
During his first two weeks on the job, the overall number of incidents has been low, Mogel said, but he’s already spotted a few trends.
“I’ve noticed that there are groups of kids that strictly stick together, but the few times that I have been called for a possible fight or whatever, it hasn’t been groups of people,” he explained. “It’s just been a kid from this group and a kid from that group butting heads. I haven’t seen groups of kids — five, 10, 15 kids — all fighting together. The calls have strictly been one-on-one.”
Another misperception, according to Mogel, is that most of his time will or should be spent in the vicinity of the main entrance, looking about as friendly and welcoming as an armed guard straight from central casting. “The last thing we need is a Gestapo-like presence in the schools,” school board member Frank Schreck announced just before casting the sole dissenting vote on a motion to accept the state grant providing initial funding for the SRO program.
Both Heller and Mogel couldn’t agree more.
The Meadville Police Department officer is in uniform, armed and equipped just like every other on-duty officer in the department.
However, “he’s not assuming a position of being a strong-arm,” Heller said Tuesday. “He’s obviously in a position of authority, but he’s not here for security. We’re not in a position where we need to increase our security — we’re in a position where we need to increase the education of our students through relationships, building self-esteem, self-confidence and interactions with people who aren’t ordinarily in a school building in an educational setting.”
Taking a pro-active approach
“Since I’ve been here, it’s been great,” Mogel said during a recent interview in his office on a first-floor hallway in MASH. “I have kids coming in and asking questions, very courteous. The faculty’s made me feel at home. I’ve tried to get to know everybody so far, but there are so many people here.”
Answering questions has been one of Mogel’s top priorities. However, he wasn’t expecting the question most often asked would be “Can you tase me?”
“I don’t know what the infatuation is with the Taser, but that’s the biggest question I’ve had,” he said with a laugh. The answer, he added, is “No,” even though he, like every Meadville police officer, does carry a Taser.
Another popular question is “What happens if a fight breaks out?”
“I tell them I’m a fully-commissioned police officer in Pennsylvania,” Mogel said. “I don’t have the restrictions the teachers do where they have to just restrain you. If someone decides they want to fight, I have the means to use as much force as necessary to stop what is going on. That’s how I explain it to kids.”
However, that’s really not why he’s there.
For now, he’s getting acquainted, establishing a presence and spending lots and lots of time answering questions.
A 4 1/2 year veteran of Meadville Police Department, Mogel, 30, is a graduate of McDowell High School in Millcreek Township; Mercyhurst University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2006; and the Mercyhurst Municipal Police Academy in North East.
For three years, he worked at Presque Isle Downs Casino as a surveillance operator before being hired by MPD in October 2009. “I like to tell people I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do. You can ask my parents — even growing up, we’d play cops and robbers and I always had to be the cop. No matter what.”
His current assignment isn’t Mogel’s first experience working with high school students; over the years, he’s also served as an assistant coach with the Erie Spears Lacrosse Club, the Cathedral Prep lacrosse team and Meadville boys soccer.
Eventually, hopefully starting next fall, he’s looking forward to even more involvement. “I’ll be introducing things like Internet safety, especially with Facebook. Teen driving. Teen suicide prevention. Domestic violence. School safety,” he said.
The school resource officer program, as he sees it, is a great public relations tool, helping to bridge the gap between the police department and the public.
“Public perception of the police — we all know what that’s like,” he said. “It’s kind of just being out there showing the kids that we’re here for you. We’re not here to lay down the law — to be jerks about it. We’re here to help, in any facet that we can.”
While he’s gratified that a number of students have come up to him and said they feel safer now, “If you think about it, it’s kind of sad in reality that they’ve felt unsafe,” he said. That’s exactly the perception he’s there to change.