Officer Cliff Priestley walking the halls at Bailey Station Elementary.
As students return to school after the holidays, they are greeted by teachers, coaches, and school resource officers (SROs). Shelby County Schools and the municipal school districts place fully trained and certified police officers in schools to prevent violence, deter crime, and build positive relationships between students, faculty, and law enforcement. Most officers are employed at least part-time in some elementary, middle, and high schools across Shelby County.
The town of Collierville fully backs the program and its police department has become the first in the state to employ full-time SROs in every public school. The city’s mayor and board of aldermen view it as a critical step in forming positive relationships with the town’s youth.
A Calming Presence
While on campus, the SRO’s day is filled with mentoring students, teaching safety-related programs, monitoring the cafeteria, and directing traffic. SROs reinforce school rules, leaving discipline to school administrators unless law enforcement is required.
“I feel very safe at school because I know there’s a police officer at Bon Lin,” says sixth-grader Tommy Baum. “Officer Estavon Garces knows everyone’s name. He knows the bad kids and the good kids. All the kids love him.”
Even though she has never needed him, Emma Onek, a junior at Houston High School, feels more comfortable knowing there’s an officer on campus. “Having an SRO at my school really does make me feel safer. I don't talk to him that much, but when I do see him, he'll ask me how I'm doing and just check up on me.”
“Our SRO definitely spends time in the role of counselor,” says Kristi Murin, assistant principal at Bon Lin Middle. “He listens to the students, gets to know their interests, and makes a connection with them. He builds strong relationships with the faculty, and many consider him an important part of our school family.”
Last year, Officer Garces received a letter of gratitude from one parent, who shared the impact he made in the life of her child. Garces checked in with her child during lunch and spent time listening and talking to him. “If this student was having a bad day or just struggling in a class, he would talk to the SRO about it. This relationship had a tremendous impact on this student during a trying time in this student's life,” says Murin.
Officer Cliff Priestley, who is stationed at Bailey Station Elementary, greets students in the hallways with police-badge stickers, monitors video surveillance footage, and has even started a special story time for young students. He visits primary classrooms to read Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann, a humorous tale about a police officer who takes his dog along to give a safety speech at school. Students create and share a safety-rules poster and are invited to sit inside his patrol car. These lessons leave lasting impressions.
“It would be nice if every student was able to say they’re friends with at least one police officer; I think that’s a great goal,” says Priestley. “We want students to be comfortable talking to police and trust us as they become adults.”
The school resource officer’s day doesn’t end with the dismissal bell. Officers also work special events, including football games, track meets, and school fairs. Often, teachers and parents go to the officers to discuss issues that arise in the home or to ask specific questions about the law. Officer Priestley has even taught classes on social media and cell phone use for parent groups.
Priestley enjoys these special duties. “It really reinforces the relationship we have with students to see them in and outside of school.”
Engaging with the officers can also provide kids peace of mind, knowing that their welfare, as well as the entire school, is the SRO’s top priority.