Oro Valley Police Department's School Resource Officer unit was one of only three such units statewide selected as a model agency by the Arizona School Resource Officers Association.
The unit received an award for the accomplishment at a ceremony on Tuesday at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale.
The other two award-winning units were from the Phoenix area.
"It's a really important recognition of our feeling of the importance of the SRO unit that serves our kids that go to school up here," said Lt. Edward Schaefer, who oversees the unit.
Oro Valley's SRO program, which started in 1977, includes seven armed school resource officers and a supervisor. Copper Creek and Painted Sky Elementary Schools and Wilson K-8 School have one officer apiece, while Ironwood Ridge and Canyon del Oro High Schools have two officers each. The officers in the program also work as liaisons to Oro Valley's private and charter schools.
"We are grateful for the Oro Valley Police Department's commitment to our students' well-being and safety," Amphitheater School District Superintendent Patrick Nelson said in a news release.
"We value our partnership with the Oro Valley Police Department, and appreciate the value of school resource officers in our schools."
"We are very lucky in Amphitheater because we have a very historical and solid degree of experience with SROs at our Oro Valley schools," said Todd Jaeger, associate to the superintendent and general counsel for the district.
Jaeger praised the officers' calming and helpful presence, especially when there are violent or dangerous incidents at schools.
In addition to law enforcement duties, resource officers teach and advise students about the law and work with counselors and administrators to keep students safe.
Some officers develop and teach law-related classes. They work eight-hour shifts five days a week, in line with school hours.
"An SRO is not only a law enforcement officer, but a teacher and counselor to the school," Schaefer said. "They do all types of things. They work not only with the children in the schools, but staff, faculty and parents, too."
Officer Shawn Benjamin has been a resource officer at CDO for seven years. She said she pursued the job because of the family-friendly hours, but has come to love it for other reasons.
"I quickly found out that I really enjoyed working with the young people I came in contact with," she said, adding that her work schedule tends to extend beyond regular hours.
"I've been able to enforce the law on campus as part of drug investigations and fight investigations," she said. "If something happens in front of us, we take enforcement action, yes. But we're also counselors. Young people come to speak with us as a resource."
The frequency of school shootings has thrust SRO programs into the spotlight, with some lawmakers calling for more extensive programs to deter assailants.
"The world has changed. There's no doubt about that. Some of those recent occurrences in schools prove that to be," Schaefer said. "So, while we have a comforting effect, what's really important is just the ongoing collaboration we have with the Amphi school district, not only to provide law enforcement on campus but also to do teaching of classes - specifically, teaching of subject areas such as drug awareness and bullying."
The program also helps spark student interest in law enforcement careers. With the help of teachers at the school, Benjamin started a forensics department that placed first at the Crime Scene Investigators State Challenge April 19 and 20 in Phoenix.
Benjamin said she sees herself as a mentor for the students.
"There is just general life advice," Benjamin said. "We'll counsel them about law-related issues and questions about specific laws. Students have come in feeling suicidal, and we've talked to those students. We get them the help they need."
The job is all about building trust, Benjamin said.
"Creating the relationship between law enforcement and teenagers is huge," she said, "A lot of times there's a misconception of who we are and what we do. When we create a relationship with them, they see you as a human being and not just as a police officer. That's huge.
"Students come up to me after they've been in class for a year and say, 'Before I met you, I used to think all police officers were jerks, but you made me change my mind. They are just humans and doing their job.' I think of that that as a big deal."
Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or firstname.lastname@example.org