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School detective cites vaping, social media among key issues in districts

School detective Jerry Markle poses outside the Butler Area School District administration building on Friday, March 22. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle

Gerald “Jerry” Markle has served as the school detective in Butler County for seven months, spending his time trying to prevent outside issues from trickling into the classroom.

Having served as a state trooper for 27 years and as a school police officer for 16 years at Butler, Mars and Moniteau school districts, Markle said he is often warning students of the severe consequences of their actions involving social media and drugs.

“I think the thing I was excited about was intervening before things get too bad,” he said. “You give me a problem, I will develop a plan to solve it.”

Often, the problems he addresses happen outside Butler County’s schools.

“Many of the things I’m seeing are not occurring in schools. I’m made aware of them before it travels into the school,” he said.

For example, he said if bullying, threats or the use of illegal substances are detected, he will directly address them with students in his office in Butler’s administration building.

“I’m calling in the parents and student in about what they have, I’m verifying it’s THC. I say, ‘I’ll be charging you with a small amount of marijuana or paraphernalia,’” he said.

This type of enforcement is something not every police department can offer due to low staffing, he said. Partly for that reason, the school detective position was conceived to serve all the school districts in Butler County, as well as private schools, according to District Attorney Richard Goldinger.

Goldinger said Markle’s role has become something beyond what they had imagined.

“It has evolved. I know when I hired him he had sort of a vision and I liked that,” he said.

Vaping, social media

Social media often points Markle to illegal activities involving students. The activities going on outside of school hours might include students possessing stolen road signs, drinking alcoholic beverages while underage or vaping.

Eric Ritzert, Karns City Area School District superintendent, and Alfonso Angelucci, Slippery Rock Area School District superintendent, both said they were pleased with the help Markle has given them related to these issues.

“What I feel has been beneficial is a point of contact our school and school police have with him,” Ritzert said. “Social media has been hard for us as a school to confront because its from outside the school setting.”

Angelucci said high school administration has particularly found Markle to be a valuable resource.

“Vaping and social media are the top two issues our secondary principal has been dealing with,” he said.

Vaping was also among the top concerns for Markle and Goldinger, but Markle noted the problem of vaping is typically limited to the high schools.

“Every school in the county is dealing with it,” Markle said.

But he doesn’t think its an “overwhelming” problem.

“It’s not like we have 20,000 students and 19,000 are vaping,” he said.

Markle said students are sometimes found with vaping devices at the school’s morning bag check or throughout the day in between classes.

Another way to find out when students are using vape products is through detectors.

According to Ritzert, the installation of Halo vape detectors in the bathrooms at Karns City Jr./Sr. High School has been one way to discourage students from bringing them into school. That being said, he acknowledged some students will also continue to find loopholes.

“Students try to work their way around setting them off,” he said.

Markle said he relies on school resource officers to cite students who have nicotine vape cartridges.

Cartridges laced with more illicit substances, such as marijuana, involve Markle issuing criminal charges.

“If it’s THC, now you’re getting into a misdemeanor,” he said. “The crime code says if you do this, I’m filing a juvenile petition against you.”

Brian White, superintendent or Butler Area School District, said THC products are in significant use.

“I attribute this to the ease of access since they are legal products for those 18 and over with a medical card,” he said. “Also, depending on the percentage of THC, the vape cartridges can be obtained over the counter by individuals who are 18 and over.”

Markle said each school has a different approach for students who are caught with an illicit vaping device, depending on the scenario. What he’s found is the school disciplinary tract and the criminal charging process tend to work concurrently.

“We can collaborate and discuss these different things,” he said.

Whether nicotine or marijuana is detected, vaping devices are confiscated for evidence, Markle said. When it comes to THC vapes, he always alerts the student’s parents about the substance.

While vaping is a prominent concern, White and Ritzert said other substances weigh on their minds.

“Our greatest nightmare is that students or staff are exposed to fentanyl or any similar substance,” White said.

Ritzert said some students are also misusing prescription medication.

“It is a concern because I think people think if it was prescribed to a family member, it’s safe for me to use, and that’s not the intended use,” he said.

School detective Jerry Markle works in his office at the Butler Area School District administration building on Friday, March 22. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle

Talking to parents about their student’s behavior and use of illicit substances is one part of the job Markle could not have predicted.

“I also tell the parents, ‘If you think this is more serious than a one time thing, there are resources available,’” he said.

One of those resources is the counseling staff members in the various school districts. Markle said he often will invite the students’ assigned counselor to offer input at the parent meetings.

“I’m frequently in communication with students’ guidance counselors,” he said. “And I’m being a counselor too, for (incidents) outside the building.”

Other concerns

When he was initially hired as school detective, Markle said there were many concerns surrounding excessive fights at Butler Senior High School.

While multiple fights have occurred this year, Markle said he filed criminal charges for only one.

“We don’t think there’s an epidemic of fights,” he said. “Several incidents have occurred where there’s a fight — I handle the fight. There’s a threat — I handle the threat.”

On the social media front, Markle said what concerns him the most is the lack of awareness among students about how certain social media activities can be considered invasions of privacy.

“I don’t think these kids even realize what they’re doing is wrong,” he said.

Markle said he’s found the majority of county students are interested in school as a place for education, not illicit activities.

“The great majority of kids want to come learn, be involved in activities, join clubs, get an education and move on with their lives,” he said.

Goldinger said he has only heard good things from the school districts about Markle’s work.

“I think it’s all positive. I think the schools are happy he’s available. He’s another resource that’s available for them,” he said.

As far as coming up with a full-proof way to keep vaping out of schools, Goldinger said he’s not sure that’s possible.

“I think we’re always going to have it. I don’t think we can completely get rid of it,” he said.

For Markle, his main mission in this role is to ensure incidents with vaping, fighting or other infractions are put to rest efficiently.

“I want to resolve things that come to my attention in a way that would hopefully prevent them from occurring again,” he said.

School detective Jerry Markle poses outside the Butler Area School District administration building on Friday, March 22. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle (3/22/2024)
School detective Jerry Markle poses inside his office at the Butler Area School District administration building on Friday, March 22. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle (3/22/2024)
School detective Jerry Markle works in his office at the Butler Area School District administration building on Friday, March 22. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle (3/22/2024)
School detective Jerry Markle answers the phone in his office at the Butler Area School District administration building on Friday, March 22. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle (3/22/2024)
School detective Jerry Markle poses inside his office at the Butler Area School District administration building on Friday, March 22. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle (3/22/2024)

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