Officer John Salazar works his beat like other cops - except his is filled with hallways, lockers and teenagers. For the past two years, the veteran Gilbert policeman has worked at Williams Field High as a school resource officer, or SRO.
SROs are permanently stationed in schools, and education and police officials consider them one of the most effective ways to deter youth crime and dissolve gang activity.
"I feel that we are a fantastic resource," Salazar said. "It's much more than watching criminal activity; we are a great resource for the students, the teachers and the community."
The Higley Unified School District has two SROs. The other one is at Higley High School. But crime in the Higley district is becoming a greater concern, and officials worry that having only two officers will spread police coverage at the schools too thin.
At a meeting between the district's board and the Gilbert Town Council last month, Higley asked for two more SROs to cover its eight elementary schools.
While the council supported the idea, they weren't sure if Gilbert has the funding for the positions because of an anticipated $58 million budget shortfall.
"There is clear support that this is a priority," said Councilwoman Linda Abbott, also a teacher at Mesquite High School in the Gilbert Unified School District. "We have been unlike other districts that pull officers from schools when budgets get tight. We want to fight to keep them inside."
But that fight is getting harder as many SROs have been funded with federal grant funds that have been discontinued.
Cities and towns now must absorb the cost, which can be great. With training and equipment, the bill for a new officer can run several hundred thousand dollars.
The costs have forced the Mesa Unified School District to pull SROs from middle schools during the past few years.
However, the Gilbert Unified School District still has SROs in its middle schools, as does the Chandler Unified School District, which runs two schools in Gilbert.
But the Higley district is unique. There aren't middle schools, just schools that are kindergarten through eighth grade.
The two Higley SROs and other officers shifted around to handle calls at the elementary schools.
But the district's student population is growing, and its schools are starting to reach capacity.
"That is my biggest point for SROs," Abbott said. "We have thousands of students in centralized locations. We should have coverage."
With the high number of students, criminal activity has followed.
In 2006 and 2007, officers handled 183 incidents at Higley High School and made nearly 60 arrests.
At Williams Field High, which opened this fall with only freshmen and sophomores, there were four arrests through December. Three students from the school also face criminal charges for a fight on a school bus on Feb. 15 that gained national attention.
The types of crime and issues at the schools go beyond just drugs, fights and underage drinking. Officials said they are indicative of crime seen throughout Gilbert.
Multiple sexual assaults, weapons incidents and arson have occurred on Gilbert campuses in recent years. For those reasons, the district said the need for officers can't be denied.
"It's an addition umbrella of safety that we should have," said Ed Moore, Higley school board president.
Abbott added that difficult situations can arise that teachers and administrators aren't equipped to handle.
"I don't believe the schools are unsafe," she said. "But there are issues that require officers."
But Abbott, Moore and other district leaders add that the need for SROs expands far beyond handling crime.
The officers double as counselors, mentors and instructors. They are often brought into classes to teach students the dangers of drugs, gangs and violence.
Gilbert officials also contend that SROs are the best form of preventive policing because the officers can reach out to troubled students before it's too late.
Since the officers are regular figures at the school, many students come to view the officers as friends.
"Kids will come tell me things that they might not feel comfortable telling a teacher or someone else," Salazar said.
That interaction is what police and school officials feel is so beneficial.
"Kids are kids, and they can do stupid things," Moore said. "Sometimes the stupid things they do involve law enforcement. But by having the SROs, the kids get to know the officers and form a friendly relationship, which can be a big deterrent to students slipping into crime."