Building strong schools one child at a time

By Kathryn Coulibaly

Morning and afternoon, the school security personnel at Burnet Middle School in Union Township take up their posts around the buildings and grounds as students stream past them. Even with 1,000 students in the district, the security guards know every student by face, and almost every student by name.

Perhaps that is because the role of a school security guard is not just to prevent unauthorized people from accessing the building—although that is an important part of their job—but it is also to know and connect with students, parents and staff so they can help prevent issues from spiraling out of control, or going unnoticed and unaddressed.

James Frazier has been a security guard in Union for 20 years. His is one of the first faces students see each day. For Frazier, and the majority of the school security team, working at Burnet Middle School is a homecoming. As a child growing up in Union, he attended the public schools, played sports, and participated in community civic groups. Fellow security guards Kim Meisch and Cliff Detjen, as well as substitute security guard Steven Stochlinski, all live or lived in Union, raising children and even grandchildren in the district.

“Educational support professionals like me are an essential part of our communities because many of our members live in the towns in which they work.” – James Frazier

School support staff are leaders in their communities

“Union Township is a culturally diverse community,” Frazier says. “My experiences growing up in Union truly prepared me for the realities of dealing with everyone from all walks of life. Many of my classmates became more like family than friends, and I want to preserve that atmosphere.”

Frazier and his wife, Patricia, a Spanish teacher at Burnet, are raising their children in the township and continue to play an active role in community and athletic organizations in Union.

“My work in the community is an extension of how I deal with school-day interactions,” Frazier says. “I believe in the school community concept: I live and work here. I am a neighbor to many of my students, as well as a coach. Many people see me as a leader as a result of my involvement with civic and community associations. Educational support professionals (ESP) like me are an essential part of our communities because many of our members live in the towns in which they work. They are a vital link between the schools and the community.”

That link—and a commitment to ensuring every child has what he or she needs to succeed—has yielded vast rewards for the community. When Frazier and Detjen, the two most veteran staff members, first began working together, each was assigned to mentor a student with behavior issues. They did double-duty as school security guards and one-on-one behavior aides, walking their mentees to classes and helping to guide them on the right path. Both students are now doing well and they maintain contact with Frazier and Detjen who have served as job references for them, and even helped them find employment with friends and family members.

Veteran security guard Cliff Detjen greets students, parents and visitors at the front desk.

Veteran security guard Cliff Detjen greets students, parents and visitors at the front desk.

Frazier shakes hands with Gifted and Talented teacher Larry Petras.

Frazier shakes hands with Gifted and Talented teacher Larry Petras.

Addressing student needs

While mentoring is no longer a formal part of their official job description, it is still a big part of the security guards’ day. Each of them can point to a recent occasion where he or she stepped in to help address an issue with a student before the situation could escalate, but they are zealous in protecting their students’ privacy and do not divulge details.

Frazier knows how important it is for the security guards’ students to see them as adults they can trust with everything including issues at home or with other students, or to help them out if they need lunch money.

“In dealing with behavior issues, my philosophy is to first address and understand the root cause of the issue,” Frazier says. “Many of our students come from homes and backgrounds that are not ideal. Many may not have eaten a meal in the morning, or went to bed the night before without a hot meal. Many come from homes where there is no love from the parent. I know many of us may be burdened by our own circumstances, but we need to recognize that not all the students in our classroom are as fortunate as we are. I believe once we recognize the causes of the underlying issue, and work to address them, you will generally see improved behavior.”

Frazier, who also serves as the vice president for the Union County Education Association and as an NEA ESP At Large Director, believes that school employees have to be advocates for their students and themselves.

“The different roles I have taken on allow me to be part of the policymaking decisions and educational advancements in the school community,” Frazier says. “I am able to have valuable input in all aspects of our community.”

At the end of the day, Frazier and his colleagues see their role as school security guards as integral to preserving a sense of community that has nurtured them and their families, friends, and students for decades.

“We grew up in an environment that we didn’t want to lose,” Frazier says. “We take it from the heart.”

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at kcoulibaly@njea.org.

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