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Pederson Named State’s Top School Resource Officer

Clay County Deputy Sheriff Paul Pederson had already experienced a busy morning when he was called to Vermillion High School at approximately 10 a.m. Friday.

He was at Jolley Elementary earlier to witness members of the Class of 2017 make a Senior Walk in their caps and gowns among the younger students. Other matters kept him away from Vermillion High School when he received a call about a fight among students in the school s auditorium. Waiting for his arrival was nearly a full assembly of Vermillion High School students, members of his family, his co-workers from the Clay County Sheriff s Office and the staff of the South Dakota Association of School Resource Officers.

The surprised deputy was greeted by loud applause and a standing ovation upon his arrival. He made his way to the front of the assembly to learn he had been chosen as the 2017 South Dakota School Resource Officer of the Year.

It s a pleasure of mine, as president of this association, to come out and recognize the resource officers from across the state for the work that they do, said Todd Runyan, president of the South Dakota Association of School Resource Officers. I think that the connection that we are able to build between us as law enforcement, the schools, with the families and with the students especially is a very important thing.

For the last 10 years or so, I ve been able to read a lot of nominations that have come across for this particular award, he added, and Paul s came across this year as being at the top of the list. Fourteen school resource officers from across the state were nominated for the award this year.

It is, quite honestly, the most nominations we ve gotten in one year, Runyan said at Friday s assembly. It s been my pleasure to work with Paul for the last number of years on the board. He s put in a lot of work in helping with us with building our association, putting together our summer conference to try to educate not just those of working in schools but also attempting to bring educators in as well as fostering that relationship.

That s the side of Paul that I have seen, but I ve had the opportunity to read what others have to say as far his relationship with the school here and the students here in Vermillion and Irene, as well. It s obvious that you have built some good connections there, Runyan said, and you ve done some wonderful things, and because of that we as a board have chosen Paul as our 2017 school resource officer of the year.

Words can t express this is fantastic, Pederson said after receiving the award. It s so much fun working with you guys, he told the audience of high schoolers, and working with the elementary kids. My goal, and I think I ve told this to every class I ve talked to, is for you to see law enforcement as people, not just as cops, and to know that we are here to help you.

I hope I m doing that. It looks like I am, I guess, he said. This is an honor.

Paul came to work for me back before I was sheriff in the 90s, said Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe. Shortly after he started working in the sheriff s office, he became our first D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer, and I m going to guess that s he taught almost all of you folks D.A.R.E. The sheriff asked the assembled students to raise their hands if they had participated in Pederson s D.A.R.E. classes. A majority of the audience members raised their hands.

Pederson began his career in law enforcement as the police chief in Irene in 1998 and joined the Clay County Sheriff s Office as a deputy in 1999. In May of 2000, he became a D.A.R.E. officer and served as Wakonda s school resource officer on occasion. In 2002, Sheriff Howe applied for a federal grant to put a school resource officer in Clay County s schools full time. Dallas Schnack was first assigned to that role until he left in 2009.

Pederson took over as full-time school resource officer at that time, and has served in that role ever since, the sheriff said.

Paul has covered all of Clay County s schools and now includes Irene to those duties. He is assisted now by Vermillion Police Officer Jon Cole who primarily covers Vermillion Middle School and Austin School while Paul covers the high school, Jolley Elementary, and the Irene-Wakonda school, Howe said. They both share the duties of teaching D.A.R.E. D.A.R.E. in Clay County is funded by United Way.

I think our SRO program is the most valuable and effective proactive law enforcement tool we use. Paul teaches kids about issues like bullying, cyber safety, the Fourth Amendment, and many other topics, the sheriff said. He counsels those with questions about the legal system, intervenes in suicidal subject situations, and presents a perception of safety and security for the students, parents and school staff. Howe noted that Pederson s role is not that of a security guard at the schools he serves, but his presence offers more security than we would have otherwise.

Although he is not intended to be the school cop, he often investigates thefts, assaults, bullying and other crimes involving students, the sheriff said. I have no doubt that Paul s interventions with at-risk students have changed lives and perhaps saved lives and certainly have prevented poor decision making that could leave kids with long-term barriers to success. Fighting crime by prevention is by far preferable than reacting to it.

Vermillion High School English teacher Carla Kozak and Teramie Hill, VHS language arts teacher, worked at nominating Pederson for the honor.

We were in a meeting, and Mr. Cameron, (the high school principal) said there was a chance to get an award to Officer Pederson, Kozak said. I ve known Paul s family for a long time; they ve been there for me when my husband was deployed (in the military) and I appreciate everything that he does. One of the student projects Hill is involved with is the Shark Tank competition at Vermillion High School.

Corporal Pederson helps us a lot, not just with the judging, but also many of you have had questions, you ve interviewed him, and he s always willing to help a student, Hill said. He also does the Teen Court program right now and I think it just shows that he s passionate about kids and he s passionate about making society a better place. He s definitely in the right line of work to do that.

I know that I could not do my job without Officer Pederson, VHS Principal Curt Cameron said. He is a great liaison between the students and law enforcement, and the thing that I want to emphasize is he is a person. He s not a cop. He s very approachable, and that is the definition of what this position is all about. Runyan said the South Dakota Association of School Resource Officers has been organized for a little more than a decade.

It is an organization designed to bring in school-based officers from around the state to be able to provide education for those officers as well as contacts from around the state, he said. Some of the things that we see on the east side of the state, the west side of the state sees, too, and the organization allows us to communicate back and forth and try to figure out what works and what doesn t work.

A couple of years after the association organized, its board decided to recognize an officer annually for the work that they do in the schools.

I believe our first award was given in 2008 or 2009, and this year, we had 14 nominations which were sent it, which is the highest number that we ve ever had, Runyan said. It s a way for us to recognize the work that resource officers do, and to let them know that they do have positive relationships with their schools. This reaffirms the job that is being done. The association s six-member board pored over all of the nominations and their accompanying letters of recommendations.

One of the big things for us is we have, as board members, had a chance to work with Paul throughout the last several years, he said. We ve seen the statewide side of things, and the work that he puts in there, and he s also had educators and administrators here in the community that spoke up about what he s been doing locally, as well.

It s one of things when we see somebody who is stepping outside of their normal duty hours, if you will, and trying to make those connections in other areas. That really stands out to us, Runyan said. He s been doing the job for a lot of years, he s still being recognized for the work that he s doing and that says something to us. Cameron, who sees Pederson as a steady presence in the halls of Vermillion High School, said he approaches his work with an open heart.

I know he just loves the student body and he loves his job, he said.

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