Wiles Elementary school resource officer named the best in the state
Published: Friday, August 22, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 22, 2014 at 3:04 p.m.
Even before Alachua County Sheriff's Deputy Philip J. Mauldin was named Florida's School Resource Officer of the Year, he was kind of a big deal.
But since he received the award, Officer PJ, as he's known to the students and staff at Wiles Elementary School, has become a veritable celebrity.
"Good job, Officer PJ," sang Clayton Kear's third-grade class when Mauldin came to see them on the first day of school.
"I don't know what you're talking about," the deputy joked.
Mauldin was named School Resource Officer of the Year by the Florida Association of School Resource Officers in July, after just a year and a half of service.
In that time, Mauldin has started a popular anti-bullying program at Wiles, saved a student who was choking in the cafeteria, found help for a Kanapaha Middle School student who was contemplating suicide and paid out of his pocket to fly three students to their grandparents' home in Indiana after the children's mother was killed by a falling tree.
His service, said ASO Sgt. Becky Butscher, goes above and beyond.
"This is not a surprise, but it's a huge accomplishment," Butscher said of Mauldin's award.
Mauldin is originally from Charlotte, North Carolina, but his family moved to Old Town when he was a teenager. He graduated from Dixie County High in 2004.
With a former Navy SEAL for a father and a mother in the Marine Corps, Mauldin always thought he'd go into the military.
But he earned scholarships to go to Santa Fe College, so he set out to become an EMT.
It was around that time, when he was working ground security for Delta Airlines at the Gainesville Regional Airport, that he got to know some Gainesville Police Department officers and Sheriff's Office deputies, who eventually persuaded him to become a law enforcement officer.
The airport is also where he met his wife, Tatiana.
ASO hired Mauldin in 2010.
He worked midnight shifts and road patrols, for which he saw a necessity but didn't necessarily enjoy.
You get a lot of negativity when dealing with people who break the law, he said. "You also see it in yourself, coming out."
When the School Board decided to place law enforcement officers in elementary schools after a shooter claimed the lives of 26 students and staff at a Newtown, Connecticut, school in late 2012, Mauldin applied for the job.
He has been at Wiles since January 2013.
"Truthfully, I would retire here," Mauldin said recently.
He has a son of his own, 3-year-old Alexander, but considers his students to be his kids, as well.
They're the best part of the job, he said.
Walking through the halls of Wiles, Mauldin has a high-five for every child and a joke for every teacher.
And the kids love him, too.
The walls of his office are decorated with valentines, scrawled by students of various ages.
They also keep him in line.
Mauldin parks his ASO vehicle in a different place on campus every day and often finds he has earned a construction paper "parking ticket" by the end of the day, which goes up on the wall across from the valentines.
At Wiles, he said, Principal Barbara Buys gives him a lot of freedom to spend time with the children: Sometimes he reads to the kindergarteners; sometimes he'll jump in on a game of dodgeball.
He listens to and works well with children as well as adults, Buys said, and that's what makes him so effective.
"People respond to that," she said.
A big part of Mauldin's job is being "Officer Friendly," he said — teaching children that law enforcement officers are there to help.
He spends most of his day patrolling the school's campus.
With close to 850 students, Wiles is the largest elementary school in the county, even bigger than some middle schools.
Mauldin also talks to children about safety issues and reminds them often that he's there for them to talk to if they're having a problem in school or at home.
"We want boys and girls to regard anybody in law enforcement as someone that's on their side," Buys said. "It's good for children to see someone that wonderful in a uniform, who obviously likes them, and pays attention to them, and wants to spend time with them."
That trust and reassurance saved a girl's life last year.
Mauldin was asked to reach out to a former student after she'd had some family trouble involving the Department of Children and Families.
He took her to a mental health center after learning she'd been contemplating suicide.
She returned to school a few weeks later and gave him a big hug, Mauldin said.
"Thank you," she told him, "for saving my life."
In November, a tree fell on a southwest Gainesville home as a family slept inside, killing the mother and putting the father in the hospital with severe injuries.
That left the three children in the family — two at Wiles, one at Kanapaha — with no one to take care of them.
Without waiting for permission, Mauldin reached out to law enforcement in the grandparents' town in Indiana. In short order, he'd flown all three children to the Midwest on his own dime.
He said he keeps in touch with the family — they're doing well. He even sent some Christmas presents.
Those parts of the job can be emotionally difficult, Mauldin said, but he insists he was just doing what anyone would do.
"I see them as my kids," he said. "It doesn't matter who they are, where they come from. They're my kids."
Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.