Officers patrol elementary schools, savor having an impact
Published: Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 7:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 7:07 p.m.
Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell and Gainesville Police Department Chief Tony Jones toured area elementary schools on Thursday to oversee the placement of law enforcement on elementary campuses.
"We're here to show a presence," Jones said at Talbot Elementary School. "We walk around and try to build rapport. It will pay dividends later in life. It's community policing."
Thursday was the first day for full-time officers at area elementary schools. Both Darnell and Jones stressed that, although officers are at schools in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, this is an opportunity to impact young lives in a positive way. There is no definitive date on how long officers will be in the schools, but law enforcement plans to petition for it permanently.
Alachua County schools spokesperson Jackie Johnson said a task force of School Board members, principals and law enforcement is meeting next week to come up with a more definitive plan that doesn't just look at school violence but mental health and security issues as well.
"I think at this point all options are on the table," Johnson said. "We're looking at everything."
Gainesville Police officer Pat Donnelly was assigned to Talbot for the day. He said students and teachers were grateful for his presence.
"Kids high-five you and say ‘Happy New Year,' " he said. "The principal was great and everyone seemed happy."
Donnelly said he mainly checked to see if adults wore badges and he patrolled the grounds. As a father himself, he said he can see the importance of having an officer in the school and how it can reach beyond simple security duty.
Donnelly said he sees himself as sort of an ambassador, and he said he polices the same zone that the school is in, so he recognizes some of the children, and they recognize him.
What he really enjoys, he said, is the face-to-face interactions with the children that show he's a human being and not just a uniform.
"People think we're rigid," he said. "But we're not. We're human beings and we like to talk."
Darnell emphasized that in her tour through the schools, she saw an opportunity for law enforcement to have a positive effect on the children's lives.
"I believe there are some benefits beyond the protection," she said. "Benefits that go beyond the tragedy spinoff. Whether this be long-term — and I want it to be long-term — based on research with gang intervention and child abuse, the younger we can reach these kids the better."
Darnell said she believes it's a good chance for the children to have role models in the schools besides the adults in the administration, but she said she wants to do it in a multidisciplinary and pronged approach.
Darnell shared an example to illustrate her position. She said a third-grader at school on Thursday has some issues with food and generally refuses to eat at lunch. The deputy assigned to the school went out of his way to sit with the student at lunch, and the student ended up eating a whole meal. School administrators were impressed with the officer's dedication, she said.
Chief Jones holds a similar position. He said he realizes that it's more than just patrolling, that these officers can have a real impact. But how to do it in the right way, he said, is something that's being looked into.
What Jones really wants, he said, is for the officers to build a rapport with the students so the students feel comfortable with law enforcement and the department can do its job not just in enforcement of laws, but in helping the community to thrive.
An incident at Buchholz High School on Thursday afternoon brought the issue to light in a real way. A young man was walking down the street with a paintball gun in a camouflage outfit, and a concerned citizen called 911. The school was locked down for a short time while the issue was sorted out. The young man was let go after officers explained to him why walking down the street like that was a bad idea.
"That was a reminder of why we're there," Darnell said. "And I'd like to show appreciation to the citizen who called. We really want citizens to know they have a responsibility, and we welcome them calling in anything suspicious. The guide there is your gut. If you have a gut reaction, call 911."