When Sgt. John Blake began walking the halls of Lewis County High School last year, it raised more than a few eyebrows.
"For the first month or so the kids were giving me weird looks and asking each other, 'Why is he here?' It took me a little time to win them over," the Lewis County sheriff's deputy said.
Blake is one of two officers in North Central West Virginia taking part in a statewide program to help prevent violence and juvenile delinquency by placing police officers in public high schools. Sgt. Randy Durrett of the Taylor County Sheriff's Department is stationed again this year at Grafton High School.
Martha Danzig, librarian at Lewis County, said Blake "often greets the kids in the morning at the door and will stop and talk with them in the halls. I think the kids derive a tremendous sense of security by having Sgt. Blake in the building."
The deputies serve as Prevention Resource Officers, educators who visit classrooms and talk with students about alcohol and drug prevention, the dangers of speeding, the law or other topics.
West Virginia is the only state taking part in the federally funded Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention grant program, which is overseen by the Division of Criminal Justice Services in Charleston. Six schools participated last year, but more than 26 are signed on this year, Blake said.
"Schools are realizing that prevention is the way to go, and an officer on campus can make a difference," he said.
A typical day for Blake may be greeting students when they arrive, walking the halls, helping students with research, teaching a class using the "fatal vision" goggles to mimic drunk driving, or just talking one-on-one.
"The kids want to talk to me about family problems, or dating, or maybe about another student who has them worried. You can actually learn a lot from the kids if you're just willing to stand around and listen," Blake said.
Sgt. Durrett, who graduated from Grafton High School in 1988, agreed.
"There are 865 students in Grafton High School and I know most of their first names," he said. "I have at least three to five students a day who come to me for advice, because they realize now that a law enforcement officer can be their friend."
The program is only eligible for funding for three years, according to Pam Knight, a Taylor County school board employee who helped secure the state grant. After that, the officers will go back to their normal duties unless more funding is obtained.
"Sgt. Durrett has fostered such a positive relationship with the students," Knight said.
"I recently sat in on one of his classes and the students weren't afraid to ask him all kinds of questions. He's a great tool for violence prevention."