October 15, 2018
By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
The future of school safety has been on the front pages of newspapers and magazines and leading the nightly news and dinner table discussions since the tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.
In Rutherford County, the safety of students has been a priority for more than two decades.
Later this month, when the nation celebrates School Safety Week from Oct. 22 – 26, the School Resource Officer Program will celebrate its 25th anniversary. The program is a joint venture between Rutherford County Schools and the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office.
Sgt. Bill West, one of the five original officers to join the program, said the program has evolved over the past 25 years, but the one constant has been the relationships that developed between SRO’s, students and administrations.
West is also president of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
Deputy Matt Powell, who was a high school freshman at Oakland during the first year of the program, said it was a brilliant idea from day one and was ahead of its time.
“It’s a forward thinking program,” Powell added.
West and Powell, who work at Brown’s Chapel and Cedar Grove elementary schools, were joined by Capt. Brad Harrison and Lt. Alan Garner for a recent roundtable discussion.
Harrison, who had been a patrol officer for eight years before joining the SRO program in its fourth year, is now a division supervisor and Garner transferred in 2010 after being an undercover narcotics officer. Garner said it took between two and three years to acclimate to the new environment.
Powell is starting his sixth year as an SRO.
He previously spent seven-and-a-half years in the patrol division and began to wonder if he was “making any kind of difference.” But he feels like a difference-maker at Cedar Grove. In fact, he once saved a young girl from choking to death.
In a wide-ranging conversation that lasted an hour, all four described themselves as part teacher and counselor, cop and role model. The following is an excerpt of their discussion.
What kind of conversations and planning took place prior to starting the SRO program?
Bill West: “Truman Jones was the sheriff at the time and he had been looking for a program in the schools and, I think, the school system had talked about D.A.R.E., but he wanted something more involved. A friend of his, Buddy Royston, had come forward with a program he had heard about out of Florida. It was in Orange County down there and talked about full-time officers in school working with the kids but always being a police officer. I think he brought the idea up to some county commissioners and they went on a field trip down there. And then some of those representatives came up here. Within about six months, from what I understand, it was pretty much a done deal. It started with six officers — five in the schools and Buddy was managing the program.”
What made you get involved?
Brad Harrison: “I would go work the ballgames and see the interactions these guys had with the kids and how the kids would just swarm them. Being a patrolman, I never experienced people coming up to you and appreciating what you do. I would watch in amazement and say, ‘That’s what I want to be.’”
Alan Garner: “I never had the experience of working in a school. I missed the boat on that one. I think it makes a big difference being in a school with your kids. I came straight over from narcotics.”
That’s quite a change.
Alan Garner: “It was a good change for me. Getting to know this group of guys and being in schools and to be able to go from school to school, it’s amazing. Like Captain (Brad Harrison) was saying, the kids want to see you there and they enjoy having you around. In narcotics, when you walk through the door, everybody hates you. I walk through these doors and right away, I have five kids, ‘Hey, how you doing Officer Garner?” It’s very rewarding to be an SRO.”
Matt Powell: “When the 13 positions came open after the Sandy Hook incident occurred, it was kind of a no brainer to apply. It’s been a rejuvenation for me and my career because I (went) from a street mindset, where we enter every situation as an unknown, to where you’re working with kids and they’re running up to you and parents come up to you to thank you and they give you hugs. I was not ready for that. They would tell me about it, but then you experience it and it was amazing.”
Bill West: “I’m glad Matt brought that up — that last surge of 13 — so we were finally able to cover all the schools instead of having two elementary schools. … For me, I’ve watched every single person come in here since 1993. They came for different reasons.”
Brad Harrison: “You get to help a kid or deal with a kid and then you get to see them for a 180 days for up to four years. You get to help them and mold them and some of these kids don’t have that at home. They don’t have that authority figure or parent.”
Matt Powell: “One of the challenges I enjoy the most, I’m at Cedar Grove Elementary over in La Vergne, so our demographic is a little bit rougher, to be frank, and I’ve had kids come up to me before and they’ve said, ‘Officer Powell, my daddy doesn’t want me to talk to you because you’re a police officer.’ At that point, I want to you to feel comfortable with me and I want you to speak so highly of me when you go home that I want dad to come in here and want to meet. Maybe I can change dad’s mind about law enforcement. … I had a parent this morning come up to me and say, ‘She won’t stop talking about you.’ That makes me feel good because I’m doing something right. If that conversation is happening at home then maybe you have adults saying, ‘Well OK, maybe the police aren’t so bad.’”
Bill West: “Yeah, I’ve had parents come up and tell me, all we talked about at the dinner table last night was Officer West.”
Matt Powell: “Sometimes you’ll be in class and you’ll have a student ask, ‘Do you take bad guys to jail?’ The problem, especially when you’re teaching a class and you have 20 kids, what you have to be cognoscente of is that you have 19 other kids who may have parents that are currently in jail. So you have to be able to say, ‘It’s not all bad people who are in jail. Sometimes good people make mistakes, but there are consequences, just like in class there are consequences.”
That seems like something that could definitely take a while for you to know how to handle.
Matt Powell: “Trial and error.”
Brad Harrison: “Experience.”
Matt Powell: “Because of something they’ve seen on TV, yes, I’ll have five-year-old’s come up to me and ask, ‘Do you like donuts?’”
Brad Harrison, Bill West and Alan Garner break out in laughter.
Matt Powell: “The first year I went in and I talked about my tool belt and I would try to be as gentle as I can be about it. Let them know, these are my tools to be a policeman. One little girl asked, ‘What does this do?’ I said, ‘It’s my baton’ and she said, ‘Don’t you hit people in the head with that?’ (cringes) Note to self, next time tell them if you’re ever in a car wreck — I hope it never happens — but if I can’t get you out by opening the door, I can break the window.’
Brad Harrison: “One thing that is impressive to me is that we are changing the mindset of our officers too. To be honest with you, before I got into SRO’s, I went to two or three different gang classes. This is how they dress. This is how they walk. This is how they talk. The first day I went to LaVergne High School and went in the lobby and the cafeteria, I was like, oh my gosh, they’re all gang members. By Thanksgiving I was going, ‘These are some fantastic kids.’ They’re following (fashion trends). We can take that back to the guys on patrol and say they’re not all in gangs.”
When you guys are in one school you become part of the culture and you know the surrounding neighborhood. You’re familiar with everything.
Bill West: “It’s vital the officer becomes part of the team at the school. It’s equally important the principal let them become part of the team. There’s very little law enforcement — true reaction law enforcement — but you’re part of everything. You’re part of planning events and being here for supervision. I’m as much a part of the staff here as anybody else.
How did the community initially respond to the idea of having officers in the schools?
Bill West: “We really just went to the schools where the principals wanted us — LaVergne (High), Smyrna Middle, Central Middle, Oakland (High) and Riverdale (High), so that helped right away to have principals say, ‘I would love to have this.’”
Brad Harrison: “I remember the parents were standoffish at first. … You built a core and then it just flowered out. Those kids and parents would tell one person and then they would tell another person.”
Bill West: “I kind of forgot about that. We would help a sport or sponsor a club and right away we would grasp onto somebody … and that helped us get that big boost we needed.”
Brad Harrison: “You get 30 kids and their parents on your side, by Christmas those kids went out and told other kids. It just started clicking and working. You get that core group to campaign for you, essentially, and it was amazing.”
Matt Powell: “The first year that the program was implemented I (was a freshman at Oakland High) and I had no idea what was going on. Bill Kennedy was our SRO and we would watch from afar because we didn’t know what exactly was going on. He was good to us and he’d talk football with us, so the football players started to gravitate toward him. After a while you realize, ‘This is pretty cool,’ but I never in a million years thought that I would be in those shoes.”
It has not been a million years, but it’s been 25 years.
Bill West: “Police programs — K9, narcotics, interstate crime, or whatever — they are great programs, but this is just such a different type of police work. That’s why we wanted to do something for the 25th anniversary.”
Matt Powell: “I’m not on social media, but my wife is on Facebook and I saw she would stop and take the time to watch videos. I thought, why don’t we put a video up on the front page of every schools website. It gives us an opportunity to explain where we come from, what we do and all the little details that maybe they don’t know about.”
Bill West: “Each officer is going to make their own video. We have a video committee in our division that’s going to do it. Probably a 30-second video when you click on the (commemorative 25th anniversary SRO) logo. We’re going to ask each officer, ‘Why do you do this?’”
Brad Harrison: “Planning a time when we can invite all the former SRO’s back and (school) administrators and county commissioners, Sheriff Jones and all the ones who started it.”
Bill West: “There’s Red Ribbon Week, Drug Awareness Week and other events we can connect our 25th anniversary to. … The timing is perfect where we can get our word out there with parents and remind them what we’re here for. Yeah, we’re police and we’re here to keep order, but the other 98 percent of the time, we’re here to help. If your child is struggling, we’re another adult with resources.”
Anything you would like to add that we have not already covered?
Brad Harrison: “This wouldn’t work without the coordination and cooperation of the School Board and the school system, administrators and the director of schools. Over the years, they’ve been right there with us. … We travel around the country and we’ve seen other programs where they have an SRO program, but there’s not that working relationship on the school side of things and it just doesn’t work. You can see—"
Bill West: “—a cohesiveness conflict.”
Matt Powell: “Camaraderie. We all have the same goal.”
Brad Harrison: “We have such a good relationship and understanding. If there’s a direction we want to head, we bounce it off the School Board or the director of schools or they will have ideas and they bounce it off of us. There’s a common ground and it’s just so nice to have that.”
Bill West: “And a sheriff that truly understands what the program is about. I hear stories from around the country, where the bosses say, ‘I don’t really know much about this, so go do what your principal tells you to do.’ So it’s important for a sheriff to have an understanding and support that mission.”
Matt Powell: “We could talk about it all day long—it’s a passion. A lot of people get up in the morning and go to a job. This is a career. It’s helped me out and it’s made me a better man.”
PHOTOS / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT