QUAPAW, Okla. — More than 100 law enforcement officers from Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas gathered at Downstream Casino Resort Thursday with one goal in mind — save teenagers' lives.
Under the leadership of School Resource Officers John Sherman and Tracy Bloss, both with the Grove Police Department, the officers came together as part of the newly established Tri-State Law Enforcement Officers Impact Group.
Thursday's meeting — the largest to date since the organization began last fall, was designed as part informational, part networking part pooling of resources.
They also heard a presentation conducted by Dave Corp, law enforcement liaison with the Kansas Department of Transportation, concerning possible programs available to help reduce the number of injury or fatal car accidents among teenage drivers.
Corp, who lives in Grove, said the impact group is important because law enforcement will only see a change in teenage driving statistics by working together.
"Instead of being separate, this gives us one agency, a single voice," Corp said. "This lets us combine resources, personnel, information, equipment and training."
More about the group
Sherman said the group begin to form last summer after Corp connected the two Grove officers with Corporal Justin Noel, and Sheriff Dave Groves with the Cherokee County (Kansas) Sheriff's Office.
At first the meetings were designed to connect school resource officers within the tri-state region in order to pool resources and knowledge, after funding for the group became available through assistance provided by State Farm Insurance Company, a supporter of other teenage driving initiatives.
Ten school resource officers and two State Farm agents attended the first session. The numbers, Sherman said, grew exponentially in the last few months to include others within the law enforcement community with a desire to stop teenage driving offenses, or to work with students connected with drug and alcohol abuse.
"I would like to see this grow to encompass law enforcement officers within northeast Oklahoma, southwest Missouri, southeast Kansas and northwest Arkansas," Sherman said. "Our kids are bouncing around everywhere, regardless of state lines.
"If Justin sees a problem in Cherokee County, it's just a matter of time before we see it in Grove, and then it spreads to Miami and Jay."
Groves agreed, adding he sees additional benefits for all agencies involved.
"Hopefully this will go beyond what is just happening in the schools and help us build relationships to work together on cases not school related," Groves said. "So many cases transcend state lines. Ultimately this will help us serve our respective citizens better."
Randy Bolin, program manager with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, attended the impact group session.
"I think all school resource officers will be able to share ideas and develop programs that are beneficial to their [students]," Bolin said. "Anything that helps reduce death or injury among school kids [is important]."
He said high school drivers are often the largest demographic impacted when it comes to traffic accidents.
"We hope [the safety lessons] carry over throughout their life," Bolin said. "They are at an impressionable age when they are just starting to drive and develop habits.
"We hope it carries through and permeates with the rest of their friends on why a program [concerning safe driving] is so important."
Response from attendees
For Dave Petrey, Pittsburg, school resource officer, the impact group is important because it allows him to trade information with his counterparts throughout the region.
"I'm hoping to get some new ideas to bring back to the students at Pittsburg High School, because I'm trying to get the kids more involved," Petrey said, adding that he often sees issues cross county and city lines within his jurisdiction especially when it involves social media.
John Millard, school resource officer with the Quapaw Tribal Marshals, brought a group of students to the session from Quapaw High School's newly formed SAFE - Seatbelts Are For Everyone program, in hopes the students would garner ideas for an upcoming impact video project.
Like others, Millard talked about the fluid nature of travel for students living within the tri-state region.
"If it's a problem in Riverton, it's going to be a problem in Grove," Millard said. "There's no fence around [our] jurisdictions. People don't change with the state lines."
Two Quapaw High School students: Kai Anderson, a sophomore, and Amber Ortner, a junior, were among the nine students attending the session.
Both talked about how it's important to educate their classmates on the importance of seatbelt usage - and how distractions while driving can cause accidents.
"We want to cut down on less accidents and kids not wearing their seatbelts, and distracted driving," Ortner said, "really anything that takes [your] eyes off the road."
Alex Perez, with the Miami Nation Tribal Police, is the school resource officer at Commerce High School.
As a graduate of CHS, Perez wants to begin the SAFE program at his alma mater.
"I want the kids to be in a safe enforcement," Perez said.
Richard Comer, school resource officer with Baxter Springs High School, agreed, adding the impact group gives him a network to use as he develops programs to bring to his students — especially the 10 percent of the student body who consistently do not use seat belts, based upon student surveys.
Next month, he plans to bring Miss Kansas 2016 Kendall Schoenekase to his schools. Her platform involves encouraging students to sign a pledge to keep their eyes off the phone and on the road, in an attempt to eliminate distracted driving.
Jay School Resource Officer Chris Bilinski hopes to implement a driving program within the Jay Public School system in the coming weeks.
He was encouraged to begin the program after learning about the various tools available to officers from fellow task force members.
Both Bilinski and Sherman hope to bring a distracted driving simulator, owned by the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office uses to educate students, to their respective campuses in the near future.
"Anything we do to bring safety and awareness to the Jay Public School System is beneficial," Bilinski said, adding that like others, he hopes drivers throughout the county take heed and learn from students.
Delaware County Sheriff Deputy Nick O'Neal said he hopes to use the information from the impact group to not only develop student driving programs for his high school, Oaks-Mission High School, but also use the information to help students at Cleora, Leach and Kenwood Public Schools.
"I think the information sharing is wonderful," O'Neal said.