Reacting to a suicide this week of a 12-year-old Neosho Middle School girl, Neosho R-5 School District school resource officer/Neosho police officer Dustin Whitehill and his SRO colleagues in the region will organize an effort to be proactive in preventing such tragedies.

Reacting to a suicide this week of a 12-year-old Neosho Middle School girl, Neosho R-5 School District school resource officer/Neosho police officer Dustin Whitehill and his SRO colleagues in the region will organize an effort to be proactive in preventing such tragedies.
Whitehill and Monett SRO Jay Jastal have called a meeting for Feb. 5 at the Monett Police Department with the other Missouri School Resource Officers Association (MSROA) members in the region.
“Instead of sitting around and waiting for the aftereffects of all this, we want to take a positive approach and start working together as a community of SROs to come up with a project,” Whitehill said. “We’ll get our heads together to see what kind of a project we can come up with together for the communities that we serve to make the students, parents and the community aware of things that kids are dealing with.”
SROs from Seneca, Diamond, East Newton, McDonald County, Carl Junction, Aurora, and possibly Joplin and Webb City will be involved in spearheading the project to spread awareness in the communities.

Underlying problems
“It’s for bullying, not only bullying person to person, but also social media, cellular devices and stuff like that,” Whitehill said. “Also on mental health issues that we deal with and, of course, sexting and awareness on child pornography. We want to get this stuff out to our communities and start coming up with some projects to make parents more aware of what’s going on.”
Bullying, which used to be a face-to-face issue, has taken a new turn with the advent of social media.
“Now we have so many other things to access,” he said. “You’ve got Twitter, you’ve got Snapshot, Facebook, all this information you can get on. It’s easier to bully that way.”
Child pornography, often transferred by cell phones, has become a big problem, Whitehill said, adding kids are fooling themselves when they think it is gone if they delete it.
“Kids think that it’s harmless, but with some of the instances that I’ve been dealing with, they don’t realize what they are doing until after they are making contact with law enforcement and the juvenile office, realizing what the true effects are,” he said.

Fighting the battle
The goal is to formulate programs to present to communities to help raise awareness of what children in this technological age are exposed to and experiencing.
“It’s time that we stop standing on the back lines and wait for these to come in,” Whitehill said. “I know the schools do a great job getting the information to the students, but sometimes we don’t do a great job of getting information out to the parents and the community and getting the community behind us in support. That way, we are all working together.
“I want to be able to work with the community better. If we took every complaint of bullying, that’s all we’d be doing every day of the week, so we want to start getting this stuff out there so we can try to take care of some of that stuff before it gets to the situation where we had a young lady take her life. I want to take a positive approach to this.”
It will be a process to brainstorm to come up with ideas and implementation them, as Whitehill said SROs are busy with their daily routines of working within their schools and police departments.
“I’ve got 12 schools just by myself that I have to take care of,” he pointed out. “I’ve got 1,500 at the high school, 1,200 at the middle school, and that’s not counting all the elementaries and our mental health facilities like the autistic center and our special-needs students. It’s very challenging when you have one SRO for a district of my size.”
Effort must be spread throughout the community to be effective, Whitehill said.
“It takes a community to raise a child, and I believe that,” he said. “If we had law enforcement, juvenile office, courts, community members, school board members, teachers, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters – if we get everyone in this and involved, I think we’ll have a better chance of heading off stuff like this. I’m not going to say it’s going to stop everything, but we need to get a little more proactive approach.”

Utilizing resources
Whitehill has had discussions with the Newton County Community Coalition, whose mission is the elimination of risky behavior and finding productive and healthy activities for kids in the county. He also has had conversations with a Joplin SRO, who is involved with the Joplin Alliance and is trained in mental health.
“I think we’ve got some great resources, but we’ve been spread out,’ Whitehill said. “It’s now time to come together and put it all together. It’s not only affecting Neosho. We will go to the other towns and help that SRO with stuff there.”
An effort to bring the MSROA president to visit with the Southwest Missouri SROs is under way to take what is learned here to other parts of the state and to possibly gain additional ideas from outside the area.
“We want to get our heads together and see what is working in some schools and what’s not working at some schools,” he said.
Whitehill hopes to come up with some type of learning tool to show the community what is going on “because it’s easy to say that we should have done it this way or that way. We can always second-guess something, but it’s time to start learning what we can do to be involved ourselves to help out.”
“I believe that wholeheartedly,”  he said. “We became resource officers because we care about the kids, and we’re humans, too. We’re not going to do everything right. We’re going to make mistakes, but that’s why if we get everyone involved working together as a community, we can start making more awareness.”

Double-edged sword
Technology is a great thing, according to Whitehill, but its powers are taken for granted by children and parents. When smartphones arrived, only adults had them, but now he sees many elementary-age children who have the phones.
“It’s a click of a button to get something,” he said. “It comes down to cyber crimes because it only takes a button where a 13-year-old can get on a chat room and you don’t know who you are talking to, but then they want you to start sending nude photos and stuff like that. It’s so dangerous.”
Even though there are age restrictions for starting a Facebook account, anyone can put in false information to obtain one. Children are more computer savvy than most parents, which Whitehill said makes it harder for parents to monitor where their children are going in cyberspace.
“They are a generation that is made of technology,” he said. “That’s going to be their life. They are being raised that way, which is great. That’s where we are going, but for us older ones, we’re still learning what they already know and have surpassed.”

Seeking solutions
“We want to get our heads together because I want a proactive approach. I don’t want to sit here and wait anymore for something else to happen,” Whitehill said. “It’s time to take a stand for our community, for the people that we serve.
“I hate that blame has to be put somewhere, and eventually blame has to be put somewhere. Instead of placing blame, let’s take the next step and say, ‘What can we do to prevent the next loss of life? What can we do to make this community safer instead of complaining about it? What’s the next step that we can take to start helping, getting involved, having community things?’”
Such tragic events bring out an air of negativity, Whitehill said, adding the negativity must be replaced with productive thoughts and actions.
“It’s time to say, ‘What can we do more, what can we be involved with to make this a better community?”’ he challenged. “I want to take from the negative and work toward the positive.
“I always considered myself a great SRO, but I want to do better. I want to step it up a notch and get other people involved. That way it’s not just a police department of 20 that has a community to take care of. It’s just a community effort we need to start working toward.”