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Pinellas sex cases a rarity, school resource officers say

Todd Pierce was a popular school resource officer who coached football, volunteered with campus groups and let students call him "Daddy." But a Pinellas jury recently convicted him of manipulating a 15-year-old student into giving him sex.

Michael Kazouris patrolled his old high school and helped his Tarpon Springs police school resource unit earn best-in-the-state honors. But he resigned this month after an investigation showed he exchanged more than 5,300 phone calls or text messages with a young woman and had sex with her after she turned 18 and graduated.

Both men worked in one of the most delicate jobs in law enforcement. School resource officers immerse themselves in the world of impressionable students and serve among them as confidants, counselors, mentors and teachers.

Cases like these are extremely rare, but they raise a question: Who in the schools protects students from their protectors?

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Police officers are not placed in schools just to arrest troublemakers. These resource officers also get to know students and become a positive influence, so they can steer youths away from gangs, drugs and other dangers. The job demands people who can build rapport with young people.

Pierce, 43, a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy since 1992, seemed a natural. Tall, muscular and outgoing, he had a natural presence in any room he walked into. He connected with teenagers in many ways, as an assistant football coach, as a drill instructor in the juvenile boot camp, as a mentor for a Students Against Drunk Driving chapter that won a state award.

But Pierce used his knowledge of the schools, the system and students' weak points to get what he wanted.

Like most schools, Osceola High School is filled with students and monitored by videocameras. But Pierce's 15-year-old victim — now a woman of 23 — said Pierce would touch her inappropriately in areas of the hallways or in his office where he knew there were no cameras. He would wait until they were out of earshot and compliment her "fat, juicy lips."

"He would say, 'You need a real man,' or 'He is not good enough for you,' " she said in a deposition.

The woman, whose name is being withheld because of the nature of the crime, said Pierce sent a "blue slip," to her teacher once or twice, which made it seem he had an official reason for her to leave class and come to his office.

One day in September 2001, when she was home sick, Pierce called her and said he needed to talk to her about an arson she witnessed. She asked if it could wait and he said no, he needed to come by her house.

He parked his sheriff's cruiser around the corner. Inside, she said, he performed oral sex on her and had intercourse.

She knew Pierce had arrested her older brother about three times earlier at Osceola, and he used that as leverage to keep her quiet.

"He would say to me, 'You know, nobody can know about this … you know what I can do to your brother.' "

Pierce could receive up to 30 years in prison when sentenced next month.

Unlike Pierce, investigators concluded Kazouris, who recently resigned from Tarpon Springs police, had not committed a crime.

But he acted in a way that to others violates common sense. He developed a close relationship with a 17-year-old student who served as his aide. He drove her around campus in a golf cart and contacted her repeatedly.

An investigator wrote that "Cpl. Kazouris told her that he really liked her but had to wait until she graduated to do anything." He kissed her once in his office while she was still a student, investigators said. And they said the two had sexual intercourse three times after she graduated.

She told investigators she felt Kazouris used his position as a police officer to manipulate her into an intimate relationship, and that he was grooming her for a relationship for after she graduated.

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Experts say it's difficult to write hard and fast rules that cover everything a resource officer might do or say. This can make it harder to spot someone who has crossed the line.

For example, say an officer goes into a windowless office with a student. Many teachers and youth leaders would never do this; no one can tell if something inappropriate is happening inside that room.

But what if that student is telling the officer he or she has been sexually abused at home?

Tom Gavin, police chief of Pinellas schools, said it's crucial to honor that student's privacy. But officers should try to find a way to minimize anything questionable in how it looks. For example, he said it might be possible to leave the door open, but make sure a secretary is stationed outside to prevent anyone else from coming in.

The whole concept behind school resource officers is building relationships with students, because then the officer can become a positive influence, Gavin said.

So what happens when a student comes up and gives an officer a hug? Some quickly employ the "sideways hug," a sort of one-armed maneuver that makes it clear no one is touching something they shouldn't.

Officers are trained on these and other issues in a state-sanctioned program that is required for school resource officers from Tarpon Springs, and which all resource officers for the Pinellas Sheriff's Office also have taken.

But it's not required statewide. Tim Enos, a spokesman for the Florida Association of School Resource Officers, said his association believes it should be. Even that step, he admits, wouldn't fix an officer who lacks integrity.

"That all comes down to the person, and what their character is."

School policing leaders said the vast majority of officers are professional and have appropriate oversight.

"You have not only the SROs that are supervised by their supervisors from their (police) agencies, but they work in collaboration with the school staff. As you're talking around, there are hundreds of eyes from people other than students," said Hillsborough schools security chief David Friedberg. In Pinellas, the 17 sheriff's resource officers are supervised by two corporals who spend almost all of their time in the schools, plus two sergeants and a lieutenant who spend some of their time in schools.

In Tarpon Springs, Kazouris was the supervisor. But in his case, the whistle-blowing came from one of his own officers, who was tipped off to the inappropriate relationship by a school administrator.

Kazouris' supervisor was Lt. Barb Templeton, who said the entire experience was difficult for the other officers who have worked to build good relationships in the schools. To make sure there are no more problems, she has urged her officers to pass along even rumors of bad behavior among their colleagues. She tells them, "It's not up to you to decide if a rumor is true or not."

Like Templeton, Enos worries that a few people who abuse the system have damaged the credibility of others who want to help kids. "When something like this happens, there might be some kids in some high schools that say, 'These SROs, man, they just can't be trusted.' That's what affects us all, that's the tarnish."

Staff writer Rita Farlow contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-9232.

Pinellas sex cases a rarity, school resource officers say 03/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 9:26pm]

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