TARPON SPRINGS — The four members of the Tarpon Springs Police Department's school resource officer unit have received a significant honor.
The unit was named the 2008 Agency of the Year by the Florida Association of School Resource Officers.
The nonprofit organization provides training for school resource officers, or SROs, throughout the state. This is the first year that Tarpon Springs has applied for the award, said Cpl. Mike Kazouris, who leads the unit.
The department was recognized for its ability to provide comprehensive services throughout the year to all grade levels.
That was all the more impressive considering the unit only employs a handful of officers, officials said.
Four of the resource officers group's committee members reviewed applications from six units across the state.
The group unanimously chose Tarpon Springs, said the group's spokesman, Lt. Tim Enos of the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office.
"Even with just a few SROs … to do everything that they're doing is quite impressive," Enos said.
The resource officers work at Tarpon Springs middle and high schools, as well as Tarpon Springs, Sunset Hills and Tarpon Springs Fundamental elementaries.
Since the department took over resource officer duties at the high school from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office last year, truancy declined 75 to 80 percent, said principal Kent Vermeer.
Vermeer said in years past the school had many "walkoffs" —students who would arrive at the school by car or bus, then leave campus.
"What we found was that, this year, that has essentially disappeared," he said.
So, too, have narcotics complaints, since the unit brought in a drug-sniffing dog, Umo, to do random sweeps. "The kids have commented on the difference it's made this year," Kazouris said.
Umo is helping the younger kids, too. More than 97 percent of the elementary students who read to Umo during the Paws to Read Program have shown improvement in their reading scores, Kazouris said.
The resource officer unit also attends school-related functions and works with the city's Cops 'N Kids program. That consistent involvement is crucial, said interim City Manager Mark LeCouris.
"You can't lose them after school and you definitely can't lose them for two and half months over the summer," he said.
The unit provides safety training for faculty and students, has established a student crime watch program for the middle and high school, and worked with school administrators to create a crisis plan for each school.
"It all pays off for all of us, because we're going to have better citizens in our community (and) the schools are going to be safer," Kazouris said.
The award will be presented to the unit at the resource officers group's annual conference in July.
Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow
@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.