Bethel Park police officer won't quit when he retires
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As a teenager growing up in 1970s Pittsburgh, Bethel Park police Officer Jim Modrak said he had plenty of opportunities to make bad choices. And when that inevitably happened, a city police officer and a few teachers treated him fairly and pointed him in the right direction.
He's never forgotten that. In fact, it's inspired the trajectory of his career.
"I appreciated it and I saw the value of it," he said of that experience.
Officer Modrak, 50, the district's school resource officer, will retire after 25 years in the municipal police department and move to Bethel Park High School full time on April 4, continuing a decade working the beat there.
In 2002, Officer Modrak was assigned to Bethel Park High and Independence Middle, and another officer patrolled Neil Armstrong Middle. The positions were funded in part by a federal grant, with the rule that the municipality and district would come up with the money to absorb the cost.
It was a natural transition. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Officer Modrak began his career as a police officer at Pittsburgh Public Schools before moving to Bethel Park. There, he worked with the Police Pals program in the district's elementary schools and the Law Enforcement Apprenticeship Program at the high school. While other officers took on high-profile duties, he found his niche where the students are.
"Whatever their fancy may be," he said of other officers, "I've always liked working with kids."
At the end of last year, the school district approached Officer Modrak, knowing he was eligible for retirement in the spring, and he didn't hesitate to make the move full time. In this role, he'll patrol only the high school campus but will continue to communicate often with his former employers. He's taking a significant pay cut, but a pension from the municipal police department will allow him to meet or slightly exceed his old salary, he said.
In 2002,Bethel Park's police chief announced an epidemic of heroin overdoses at Bethel Park High School. Months before Officer Modrak started patrolling the campus, a recent graduate was charged with selling heroin to another student on campus and that student overdosed and died. Entering the drug culture didn't trouble Officer Modrak as much as the chance someone may slip through the cracks.
"We buried a lot of kids, unfortunately," said Officer Modrak, also a married father of four. "The fear is if you miss something."
These days, district employees are taking a more aggressive approach. Drugs are still out there, but they've made great progress toward eliminating the serious ones, he said.
Whether working to rid the halls of drugs, or ordering kids to properly de-ice their car windows before zooming away, interacting with staff and the students themselves is key.
"I try to be direct and up front. I don't try to sugarcoat it and just try to say it how it is," he said.
If students are "pretty consistent" from one generation to the next, it's technology that's been a marked change -- for them and Officer Modrak.
As students have turned to cyber bullying, a handful of district employers hold fake personas on Facebook to monitor student activity.
Online harassment is a problem, he said. "It's just so easy for a kid to post something because they're not saying something face to face."
In the hallways, students have also been known to act up through text message. Officer Modrak recalled one incident in which a student passed around another student's number and encouraged friends to inundate her with text messages.
"That's still bullying, that's still harassment," he said.
To be sure, Officer Modrak texts, too -- mostly just to fellow district employees -- and he also gives out his cell phone number, inviting students to call anytime they're compelled to share something with him. (He gets a couple of calls each month.)
Incidents like the recent Chardon High School shooting in Ohio always make him stop and think, he said.
And there's that other big change: The shiny new high school, just across the street from the sprawling eight-building campus he used to patrol. While the move was "a rough transition," Officer Modrak said it's much more secure and he's getting a pretty good workout walking up and down the steps.
First Published March 8, 2012 5:51 am