- Associated Press - Monday, December 7, 2015

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - Eighteen-year-old Cody Percoski sat down before a TV monitor and picked up the telephone earpiece. It’s his only means to talk to the outside world during visiting hours at the Williams County jail.

“This is the longest I’ve ever had to sit in jail,” Percoski said. “I didn’t plan it, but I realize I give into peer pressure pretty easily.”

He’s there for allegedly conspiring with three other high school students - all minors - to visit the residence of Alex Gilbertson, a teacher at Williston High School. Gilbertson’s vehicle window was shot out with a BB gun and firecrackers were thrown into the vehicle causing it to catch fire and eventually explode, according to the affidavit.

As it happened, Gilbertson’s vehicle had a full gas tank and was parked mere yards from of a neighbor’s home that had small children inside. The fire was brought under control before the situation escalated.

Gilbertson found out about the incident from a neighbor who called while he was driving home from a wedding in Bismarck.

“Oh my goodness, I was shocked and kind of nervous,” Gilbertson told the Williston Herald (http://bit.ly/1XF61gA ). “I was thinking back to my insurance and if it would cover it.”

The vehicle’s value estimated at $20,000 according to the affidavit, but it was not covered through his liability-only insurance plan. The ordeal has led to many extra headaches for Gilbertson, who in addition to his teaching duties is currently attending grad school.

Could all of this have been avoided?

Williston Public School District No. 1 brought in a Student Resource Officer earlier this year, making it one of the last Class A schools in the state to bring in an actual police officer on to campus. It has taken over two years to procure the position but with the construction of the new high school, it has opened discussion for the need of a second one.

Superintendent Dr. Viola LaFontaine has been working with the district’s Business Manager to see how the numbers add up for next year’s budget. In the school board meeting held Nov. 19, LaFontaine said the school is currently looking at an added expense of $3 million for the salaries of the new teacher positions that will need to be filled.

“We’re opening up a whole new school,” Lafontaine said. “It doesn’t take long for the dollars to go up and an SRO is high on the priority list, but we’ll have to have the (teachers) in place prior to hiring an SRO.”

“The position would have to be approved by the city,” said LaFontaine. “We pay 75 percent and they (Williston Police Department) pay 25 percent because they have to still be an officer of the law.”

The SRO currently on District 1 campuses is Danielle Hendricks.

“Generations have changed,” Hendricks said. “At the high school level you’re at the age where your parents give you more leeway. You have the opportunity to make decisions and they can either be positive or negative.”

She said she could use more help.

“I would love it if we could get another SRO,” Hendricks said. “I think the biggest advantage with my position is catching kids when they’re young and being a positive role model. With a second SRO, we can really target the elementary schools … If we don’t get a second SRO, I mean it’s a lot but I have such wonderful support that we could make it work … other officers want to get involved.”

The location of the new school is secluded from the rest of the district and soft plans for a second SRO would be to have them strictly operate from there. The officer would look after matters of over 1,000 high school students.

The other officer would take the reins at the middle and elementary schools, which need special focus as the next generation is exposed to a new level of problems, in large part because of social media.

“I think when we were young we were able to brush things off, and now, today’s generation, there’s social media,” Hendricks said. “That’s where we are starting to see severe bullying.”

Even a law enforcement professional like Hendricks is often shocked by some of the things even the youngest students say to each other.

“It’s gut-wrenching the things I read,” she said. “It makes me want to cry. Bullying is getting to the point where it is so bad and teen suicide is so high right now. To these kids, it’s the only thing that matters. It becomes the only thing they think about. It’s traumatic and horrendous.”

On top of that, teachers say it is becoming more prevalent for parents to become defensive when educators reach out to discuss issues they see in the classroom. They say parents have been more apt to blame the teacher then take ownership in their children’s lives.

That new mentality has been bred into much of today’s youth, according to Hendricks.

Since taking the position, Hendricks said she has begun to reach the children and help them understand how their actions mean greater consequences.

Henricks said another SRO would help to reach children at earlier stages so that extreme acts of violence and vandalism never occur.

“The thing with that is a lot of kids are good about going to discuss their problems with (Assistant Principal) Mrs. (Audrey) Larson, or the counselors,” Hendricks said. “(The situation involving Gilbertson’s vehicle) could have been resolved had they just talked about it. That incident goes to show how times have changed.”

Hendricks said the purpose of the SRO is to support, not replace the roles of teachers and administrators.

“These teachers are literally putting their hearts and souls into these kiddos,” Hendricks said. “That’s what this is about - making a difference for the kids and teaching the kids they can talk to us. We are here for them.”

Could additional law enforcement presence on campus prevent the next Cody Percoski from winding up in the same straits?

“I wouldn’t have done any of it if I would’ve known I would end up here,” Percoski said before hanging up the phone as visiting hours came to a close.

He was awaiting a preliminary hearing this month.

___

Information from: Williston Herald, http://www.willistonherald.com

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