Five years into his career as a school resource officer (SRO), Alex Swartz was told in 2016 that his days on the job were numbered.
He was hit by a drunk driver and pinned against his vehicle in 2008, breaking his back, and he was hit by another drunk driver in 2010, breaking his back and neck. Surgery and rehab helped him walk again, but he could not run or look over his shoulder.
Still, when doctors shared the depressing news in 2016, he was not ready to leave the job he loved nor the students and staff he considered family.
“Doctors told me in 2016 that if I continued to wear the gear SROs have, the physical end of the job would eventually wear down the area where I had my surgery,” said Swartz, explaining that the gear weighs about 32 pounds. “I loved the job too much to stop.
“As the years went on, sometimes I would turn my head too quickly and I would hear a pop, and that would cause severe headache and vision issues,” he said. “I could always get through it and felt like I was still safe to do the job.”
Swartz no longer feels that he can do the job safely. During the pandemic, he was driving and became dizzy. He pulled over, sat for a few hours and vomited.
“I haven’t been sick like that since I was 10 years old,” Swartz said. “I don’t drink and have never done drugs. I’m clean other than chocolate.”
Doctors informed Swartz that he reinjured his neck. Swelling surrounded the surgical area by his spinal cord.
“There is pressure on the nerves, causing an equilibrium-type issue,” he said. “I haven’t been able to ride a bicycle, which, for anyone who knows me, is a big deal.
“It would be selfish of me to be in a career where I am tasked with helping people,” he said. “I have always looked at the job as having 2,000 kids, teachers and staff members. I always told myself if I couldn’t step into every situation and handle it, I would step away.”
Swartz is undergoing “grueling” physical therapy. It’s difficult for him to walk in one direction for long without getting dizzy.
“I’m used to being the person there to protect and serve, and now I need people to protect and serve me,” he said.
A retirement ceremony was held September 23. It’s been an emotional time for Swartz, one full of reflection. A 1989 Severna Park High School graduate, Swartz spent one year as an SRO at George Fox Middle School before coming to his alma mater during the 2011-2012 school year.
“Some SROs can’t get too close to students because otherwise they can’t do their jobs,” he said. “I get that it’s hard. I really felt like it was important for the students but also the community as a whole to be able to trust me, not only as a police officer but as a human.”
Swartz was honored to be called when help was needed and for students to feel at ease sharing their problems.
“There is the law, but there is also a basic humanity of caring for people,” he said. “And sometimes, the law isn’t going to fix the problem.”
Swartz witnessed that firsthand, spending six years with the police department before he became an SRO. He and other officers could arrest someone and never see a positive outcome.
“I had only 20 minutes with a person when they messed up,” he said. “You put handcuffs on them, take them to the station, go through the booking process. You’re writing reports and might have 20 minutes to talk to them. A lot of times, I could understand their situation and how they get there, and I could see this was not going to help them. It hurt.”
As an SRO, he had four years working with most students.
“How cool is it — with a freshman, you have four years to help that person see the error in their judgement and show them a way to fix it,” he said. “There were moments I could charge some of them, but what good would that do? It would go on their record and hold them back.”
He practiced that philosophy during school dances. When he saw intoxicated students who could hardly stand, he often called their parents and had a discussion instead of charging the student for possession of alcohol.
“In those first few years, I carried a few kids out and had to put them in their parents’ cars,” he said. “I have sons and I have daughters. I allowed myself to feel the way a parent would feel about every one of the kids at Severna Park High School.”
Swartz is grateful to the Severna Park High School staff and also the patrol officers who would call him outside of school hours if a student had done something wrong. “And I was fortunate I had a wife who was supportive of that,” he added.
“Most of the time, I could keep a kid from being charged at that moment and I could deal with it at school,” he said.
He walked the fine line of being supportive but also firm when necessary.
“Kids would sometimes say, ‘You’re my best friend,” and I would say, ‘No, I’m definitely someone you can trust, someone you can lean on, but I’m your SRO.’”
Being a police officer did not mean he had to appear intimidating.
“I like being nice,” he said. “I like smiling every day.”
Coming to the job at age 33, he had life experience in the Army and building houses.
“I understood the ups and downs of life before coming to the job. That made it easy to understand people,” Swartz said. “For kids, I could understand their mistakes and truly explain where their decisions would lead them. Just because I didn’t drink or do drugs doesn’t mean I wasn’t around it.”
Not only was Swartz willing to share advice but also simple greetings to make everyone feel important.
“If you give, you’re going to get back,” he said. “A simple ‘good morning’ to someone can make their day. I could see in the students’ eyes that some were excited to be at school and some weren’t. But if someone can just acknowledge they are there, it can make a difference.”
Swartz recalled one such encounter that was brought up years later while he was at Chipotle. A former Severna Park student had just learned that his mom asked Swartz to do something after her son had tried drugs and was “going down a bad road.” At school, Swartz addressed the boy by his name and said, ‘Good morning.’ The boy was scared Swartz knew about his activities, and so he started making better decisions.
“I just want to make a difference, so for this young man to tell me that I did, that’s pretty cool,” Swartz said.
During his time as an SRO, he also enjoyed taking pictures with students during football games, especially the band members who were “working their butts off” and often getting less recognition than the athletes.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t fit in anywhere,” he said. “I wore a jean jacket and high-tops. I had long hair and terrible skin. Severna Park was more about polo shirts and nice hair. I played lacrosse, but I didn’t party or dress preppy, so I didn’t fit in.
“As an SRO, I saw kids who were different, and I wanted them to embrace it. I told them to ‘keep being you.’ I like seeing people live their lives the way they want, as long as they aren’t hurting themselves or others.”
Swartz will miss the chance to give students that positive reinforcement and to be involved as the county develops programs to discipline students without charging them with an offense.
“Anne Arundel County is so far ahead of the curve as far as policing,” he said, citing the crisis intervention team as one example.
Long-term, his plans are unclear. For now, he is assisting his wife, Elizabeth Werner, a guest host on QVC.
“I’m her cameraman, set designer and toy builder,” he said. “We film from our house.
“I’m fortunate to have a spouse who I love every moment of life with, and I look forward to running into graduates in the future,” he said.
Whatever he does next, he hopes it will be as exciting as being an SRO. When he was in the Army, he jumped out of airplanes. For seven years, he raced motorcycles. And for about a decade, he gave his all to being an SRO.
“Every time a kid came in with a problem, it was like jumping out of a helicopter,” Swartz said. “A child is about to tell you something, about to dump their emotions and fright on you. It was a whirl of emotions that whack you. I’m going to miss the students and staff.”
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