School Resource Deputy RJ Bielenberg provides security, comfort for Harlan Community and Exira-Elk Horn-Kimballton Schools
COUNTY — Students at the Harlan Community and Exira - Elk Horn - Kimballton Schools saw a familiar face when they began the school year, as Shelby County Sheriff’s Department Deputy RJ Bielenberg has resumed his role in both locations as the School Resource Officer.
The position is made possible by a partnership with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, the schools, Myrtue Medical Center Behavioral Health, and Southwest Iowa Mental Health and Disability Services.
Costs for the program will be covered by American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds approved by the Shelby County Board of Supervisors last November.
Deputy Bielenberg accepted the position in January and his first day of school was February 21.
Dividing time equally
Beilenberg said he tries to divide his time equally between the three Harlan Community Schools, the E-EHK Elementary School in Exira, and the Middle and High School in Elk Horn.
“Just like in a patrol aspect if I am in one building patrolling, talking with students, taking a report, or assisting staff in some way and I take a call for service from another building, I will respond to that call. It all just depends on who needs me that day. There is so much that goes on during the school day I stay very busy and I love that part of it. There is always something to do and students to connect with,” he said.
Harlan Community School District Superintendent Dr. Jenny Barnett said, “RJ has been a terrific addition to our school system. He is very student-friendly, understands the community, and truly wants to keep our schools safe.”
Dr. Barnett said Bielenberg has used his experience in law enforcement when communicating with teachers, administrators, students and parents.
Bielenberg said he attends most big gatherings at the schools, not only to provide security, but also to support the students.
“In the past, we never had a designated person for those events. A patrolman or deputy would try to stop into those events occasionally— if they could — between calls for service. The Harlan Police Reserves would provide security to events when requested, but the Reserve Officers are a volunteer department and would not always have someone available to fill that need,” he said.
Dr. Barnett finds comfort in knowing law enforcement is available at a moment’s notice. “His presence at games, concerts, and other school events has been wonderful and well accepted,” Dr. Barnett said.
Eight years experience and training
Deputy Bielenberg began his career in September 2014 as a Patrolman for the Harlan Police Department, where he served as a Reserve Officer Liaison, Field Training Officer and Defensive Tactics Instructor.
He served on the HPD until he accepted the School Resource Deputy position earlier this year, then began the necessary training before starting at the schools.
Bielenberg said it is recommended to take the basic school resource officer course through the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), a five day, forty-hour training designed to prepare school resource officers and school safety professionals to effectively fulfill their role in the school setting.
“I attained a solid understanding of the responsibilities of the SRO using NASRO’s Triad Model of school-based policing, which helps officers develop successful relationships with diverse students and to support students with disabilities and behavioral health challenges,” he said.
Some of the topics in this course were relevant public safety topics, such as digital safety, human trafficking, mental health and substance abuse. The course also trained in de-escalation, behavioral threat assessment, emergency operations planning and armed assailant response.
Bielenberg credits his training success to his fellow officers at the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department.
“Sheriff Neil Gross takes that aspect of the job very seriously. Sergeant Chad Butler is also our training official in charge of making sure everyone’s certifications are current and up to date along with finding new trainings and courses for our Deputies to attend. Sergeant Butler does a phenomenal job in finding trainings. Since my employment with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, I have attended numerous trainings such as the Iowa School Resource Officer Conference, Crisis Intervention Trainings, and Interview and Interrogations to name a few. I have many more trainings coming up and I have yet to have a training request be denied,” he said.
“I get to wear many hats within the school,” he said.
Sometimes, his job finds him taking on the role of an educator or guest lecturer, or acting as an informal counselor/mentor, but his main focus is public safety.
“I want to maintain a safe learning environment for all students, staff and visitors. This is not only in the context of security, but I want kids when they come to school to be comfortable speaking to staff and myself about any issues they may be having that might not even be law enforcement related to see if we can provide some services for them,” he said.
He continued, “Personally, I feel like my most important part of the job is building positive relationships with the students. I want to show the students that law enforcement is here to help, and I want them to be comfortable speaking to us.”
His goal is to build strong relationships so students are willing to speak to him and report issues, and said, “I want to give them some consistency when they are having those bad days.”
“I have had a handful of students speak to me about events that had happened to them in the past that were never reported. When I asked them why they had not reported these incidents their reply was usually either they didn’t know any better or they really didn’t like law enforcement because the interactions they had with law enforcement they felt had been negative,” he said.
“I want to change all of that.”
Bielenberg noted that while he was only in the schools for a brief time last semester, he felt he was making an impact.
He said, “Over summer vacation, I had kids stop by my house and contact me on a weekly basis— sometimes just to check in and other times to report something.”
He said he enjoys the educational side of his job, including teaching bicycle safety, stranger danger, drivers’ and education topics. He noted that women’s self-defense is his favorite thing to teach, and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department hosted a self-defense course last month for high school and college aged women. He would like to plan a yearly field trip to the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy for students who are interested in a career in law enforcement, corrections or dispatch.
He noticed that vaping and nicotine addiction is a problem with teenagers, so he carries gum and hard candies to give to students to try and curve the cravings.
“I have seen some success getting kids to quit smoking,” he said.
He is planning a curriculum to educate students on a variety of safety topics, including substance abuse and drinking and driving, as well as implementing a yearly training for school staff on threat response trainings including lockout and lockdown.
Deputy Bielenberg is a 2008 graduate from Harlan Community, but admits it had “been awhile” since he had been in school, so when he accepted the position, his first goal was to learn schedules and build a working relationship with staff.
“I didn’t want to be a disruption to their schedule and try and change a lot of what the school was doing,” he said.
“I have given school officials some small recommendations, but the schools staff are doing an excellent job when it comes to safety. I was involved in updating the school handbooks and policies this year and will be involved in updating our threat response plans as well,” Bielenberg continued.
Helping students with mental health
Deputy Bielenberg hopes his position will assist students struggling with mental health issues. He continues to work with administration, counselors, interventionist, teachers, Myrtue Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Department, and social workers to provide the best services to students.
He has also had specific training working with children and young adults with mental health, behavioral, or developmental diagnoses, and stated, “A normal patrol officer responding to a call for service may fall short in these areas.”
He hopes that this service will extend beyond school hours.
“If we have students who are at a higher risk of needing emergency response, I can share the information I gather from school with the rest of my office and local law enforcement. That way, if a call for service comes in for that student after school hours the responding officers will have that vital information and be able to handle the call more appropriately than maybe they would have without it,” Bielenberg said.
He added, “If there is a call for service with one of the students for a mental health crisis after school hours and they specifically request me, I will still respond to it if I am available to assist.”
Deputy Bielenberg realizes the stigma regarding mental health, especially with young men.
“They can’t talk about it,” he said, but wants students to know help is always available.
“If you or someone you know needs help please call or text 988 anytime to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. If you want to explore local services for mental health, please call Myrtue Medical Centers Behavioral Health Department at 712-755-5056 and schedule something today. Suicide is never the answer and there are people who care and want to help you so please let us help,” he said.