By MARINA WATERS
Usually when a school resource officer is in a room full of school principals, it’s following an intense situation at a school. But on Friday, June 15, each of the county schools’ principals gathered for the district’s annual SRO appreciation lunch to celebrate the officers and to show gratitude for the men and women who serve and protect Washington County’s schools.
Apart from offering a home-cooked meal to the Washington County Sheriff’s Department SROs, Washington County Interim Director of Schools Bill Flanary said he hoped the event expressed the system’s deep appreciation for all the officers do throughout the year — from protecting schools from intruders to building relationships with students throughout the system.
“It is our meager expression of thanks for what they do,” Flanary said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Look at all of these horrible things that are happening around the nation.’ But they are that thin blue line but it’s more than that.
When a 7-year-old girl or an 11-year-old boy can look at these officers in the hallway everyday at school and form relationships with them — for the rest of their life, they look at officers as more than just a badge and a uniform. To protect and to serve becomes something meaningful, not just writing on the side of a police car. I think it literally changes the way young people think about police officers.”
The director wasn’t the only one to notice an SROs impact; each principal took time to talk about the officer placed at their school and the difference those men and women in uniform have made within their hallways. Though the introductions of each officer included kind comments and humorous memories, a clear emphasis was placed on the seriousness of an SRO’s role in a school.
For Fall Branch Elementary School Principal Mark Merriman, the seriousness of that job was forever marked in his mind when Officer Emily Phillips’s quick reaction offered protection for everyone in the building during a lockdown situation.
“Locking down the building at Fall Branch is basically the end of the world because it’s Fall Branch and we’re in a nice quiet end of the county,” Merriman said. “Next thing I know she’s at one door and I’m at the other door. It’s just the SRO and the principal in the hall and there are six or seven sheriffs cars flying by on Highway 93.
“It’s that time that you get goosebumps and you realize it’s you and your SRO. It’s so powerful what you all do for our community. It’s times like that when the power of the principal is gone and we need that outside support.”
It was also made evident that each officer has been challenged to jump into action, which numerous principals said proved the ability and training of each officer in these schools.
“There’s not a weakness,” Daniel Boone High School Principal Tim Campbell said. “Usually in a big group, there’s a weaker one, but there’s not a weakness sitting at this table. It’s just amazing. Each time someone (threatening) shows up, like the other principals said, you all have it covered.”
The discussion also led to a call for more SROs; a few schools throughout the county share an SRO, which is something many local officials have cited as a concern.
WCSO Captain Greg Matherly, who is also a member of the Washington County Commission, addressed the concern at the luncheon. He said he felt that the department was close to their goal of placing an officer at each school.
“It’s very hard to share SROs,” Matherly said. “These principals right here will get in the same line I’m in and say ‘We need an SRO in every school.’ We are committed to placing SROs in each school. The most highly trained, the most dedicated and the most qualified. I know what I expect of them and I know what you expect of me and those are the only ones I’ll send.”
He also cited the time required to adequately train an SRO as something his department must consider in hiring an officer to place at a local school.
“It’s a whole different thing (being an patrol officer as compared to being a SRO). We do things differently with educators than what we do on that hot call. I have more field training officers than any other division. People say, ‘How is that?’ — it’s because I get all the good ones.”
Until the goal is met, school system and county officials all agreed that when it came to school safety, there was nothing more valuable than the protection of a dedication, well-trained officer behind the door of each school.
“We’ve had a lot of changes in our county. One of them was security.” Phillip Patrick, the school district’s maintenance supervisor, said. “And we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on securing our buildings. We’ve put fences in, cameras, locks, alarm systems, all these things, but none of those are more valuable than you people sitting there. I think I speak for everyone when I say we’d give up all our stuff to keep you all.”