FLORENCE, Ky. — The peace of mind that their kids will be safe at school, and come back home is sadly something no parent is guaranteed.
Many laws and school policy changes have been enacted in recent years in response to the tragic school shootings that have taken place across the country.
Boone County Deputy Sheriff Chris Saunders has been roaming the hallways of Ockerman Middle School in Florence for seven years as a school resource officer (SRO).
“It’s just walking around, being present. I like to mess with the kids. They mess with me. It’s a really good relationship that we have. You’re just there for whatever might come up,” Saunders said. “It’s really hard to say this is what I do every day, because with kids, I mean it always changes.”
House Bill 63 mandated there must be a school resource officer like Saunders at all school campuses in Kentucky by Aug. 1. But the state was about 600 SROs short of that goal. Kentucky School Security Marshal Ben Wilcox said if funds or personnel are not available, schools need to work out a plan with his office.
The new law aims to bolster security in schools in response to the tragedies that have taken place.
“It definitely puts the meaning behind why we’re here. Nobody wants that kind of tragedy to happen anywhere, let alone in your backyard. So when things like that happen, we look at it. We try to look at it from a law enforcement aspect, like why did it happen? How did they get in? Look at those weak points, and try to fix them before they are an issue,” Saunders said.
Saunders said if he could go back and tell himself at the beginning of his time as an SRO that he’d still be at Ockerman, he wouldn’t believe it.
“Coming from patrol, it was one of those things that, you’re like, ‘I don’t know if I really want to do that or not.’ Decided to give it a try, and I love it. I mean, the kids are great. You get to bridge that gap,” he said. “They don’t always have to see you in a negative light, or it was something maybe you dealt with them on a traffic accident, or something at home. They see you just as somebody there that’s looking out for their best interest, and I think it puts a positive light to put some of that trust amongst the students and law enforcement.”
When Saunders started, he was covering four schools.
But the Boone County Sheriff’s Office and Boone County Schools have been ahead of the curve in dedicating an SRO to every school, starting in 2018. Other changes in Saunders’ time include electronically locked doors.
A person can only get into Ockerman Middle School after stating their business on camera and getting buzzed in by the staff.
“Anybody that wants to come in, they have to go through these main doors,” Saunders said, checking himself in.
Thankfully, Saunders has not seen anything close to the horrific situations other schools have had to deal with. But he has had times where he’s needed to step in.
“We’ve had our share of events. There’s been some that, we get a lot of threats where something will happen somewhere in the U.S., and then next thing you know, you’ll have the copycats and they’ll want to put something on Snapchat or Instagram,” he said. “But we take those very seriously. We treat them as a real threat, and we address them. We go to work. We take care of what needs to be taken care of. The kids, they will come up and tell you, hey there’s somebody by the gym doors, and they’re knocking. And it could just be a delivery guy.”
Boone County has had its SRO program in place since 1999. Back then, there were four SROs. Now there are 29, all of whom have completed 120 hours of state mandated training.
“We lead by example. We put professionals in our schools. These are guys and gals that really can do a lot of different things. They can patrol, but they can also connect. There has to be a special type of individual to be an SRO. I don’t think that every police officer, sheriff’s deputy, could do this job,” said Major Philip Ridgell.
Ridgell said SROs in every school have cut back the number of incidents they see.
“I believe there’s a deterrent within the school when you put an SRO in every school to where if a bad actor knew that they could target one because the others one’s on a different part of the campus, that’s certainly an advantage in and of itself. Our SROs are really a first line of defense,” he said.
Schools can also call them directly, rather than go through dispatch, which can help resolve problems more quickly.
Being an SRO takes a different approach than being an officer out on the street, which is something Saunders said he’s glad he stuck with, and glad to see more Kentucky schools will now have in place.
“I think it’s huge. The kids, they obviously see you around in the community. They want to come up and talk to you. You get families that come through that have multiple kids, so you got that multigenerational approach as well. It just makes it really nice to not just be the police officer. They can see you as somebody they can talk to,” he said.
Building up relationships like those Saunders has, however, will only come with time and dedication.