• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Newest school resource officers sworn-in

Simmons Elementary School hosted a ceremony last Friday, Aug. 31, that was a historic occasion for Woodford County Public Schools. School resource officers (SROs) employed by the school system were sworn-in by Woodford District Judge Mary Jane Phelps.

The five newly-hired SROs bring more than 100 years of law enforcement experience and an excitement for the job.

“I love working with kids,” said Steve Sutton, who retired after 20 years with the Frankfort Police Department. “I’ve been involved with youth sports for probably 30 years. And when this opportunity arose, I thought it’d be a good change.”

Sutton described his first two weeks as SRO at Simmons Elementary as rewarding. “We’ve played kickball. I open ketchup packages,” he said.

Sutton and the other SROs agreed one of their top objectives is building positive relationships with students.

“Let them know what they see everyday on television is not what police are about,” said Michael Cole, who retired after 21 years with the Lexington Police Department. “They’re just showing the bad aspects… We’re there to help you – anytime you need a helping hand come to us…”

Before the Woodford County Board of Education voted to hire school resource officers for its four elementary schools and the Safe Harbor Academy alternative school, only the middle and high schools had SROs. They are employees of the Versailles Police Department, which does not have the needed personnel to provide fulltime SROs at every school in the district.

As director of staff/student services, Garet Wells told the fifth-graders attending last week’s swearing-in ceremony there’s nothing more important than school safety – their safety.

Wells spent several weeks this past summer meeting the legal requirements to create a police department within Woodford County Public Schools. He explained the process during an interview prior to last Friday’s swearing-in ceremony.

“In order to be an officer in a school,” said Wells, “you have to go through very, very similar training that any other police officer in any other department in Kentucky would have to go through.”

The Woodford County Public Schools Law Enforcement Department has been registered with the state and its officers are required to complete 20 weeks of basic training, Wells said. He said the officers hired by Woodford County Public Schools have recently retired from law enforcement jobs, so they already meet the basic training requirements.

The officers are also required to meet annual continuous training requirements (approximately 40 hours a year) just like every other Kentucky police officer, according to Wells.

“As part of that 40 hours (of training),” he said, “there’s a school resource officer-specific training that I believe we’re going to have each of our officers do to make sure they get the appropriate training on being a school resource officer.”

That training will occur sometime during the school year, he added.

The fulltime SROs employed by Woodford County Public Schools have 185-day contracts, so they work every school day, and have additional days set aside for trainings, said Wells.

“…We know the primary purpose for them being there is to provide security (for students and school staff),” Wells said, “but also much of the time they’re going to be there as a positive role model for kids, working with kids.”

Cole, who will lead the school district’s police department as its chief and also serve as SRO at Safe Harbor Academy, said parents have told him they’re happy to have police officers in their children’s schools.

“They love seeing us there,” he said.

Before Wells introduced the district’s new SROs to students at Simmons, Principal Tiffany Cook thanked the officers for what they do.

“We greatly appreciate your service,” said Cook. “You’ve already made a huge impact – not only in this building, but in the other buildings you’ve been in.”

Judge Phelps, whose daughter was a student at Simmons, and whose son attends Woodford County High School, said she appreciates the district’s focus on school safety.

“So this is a great initiative that has been undertaken by your school board to form, basically, a police department within the school system,” Phelps told students.

After the SROs were administered the oath of office by the district judge to formerly begin their service, they answered a variety of questions asked by the Simmons fifth-graders.

“Our job is… to protect the school, to protect you, to protect the teachers, to protect the staff. That is our number one duty. To make sure that you come to school safely and return home to your family safely every day,” said Cole. He said SROs are also there to help in other ways or just listen, but “if need be we will put our lives on the line for you without a moment’s hesitation.”

Jamie Johnson, who retired from the Lexington Police Department, said he looks forward to coming to work at Huntertown Elementary School.

He’s there to help students when they arrive in the morning and during lunch. Recently, he helped out in a PE class and “got out of breath, a little bit,” he told students.

The SROs began the school year without their uniforms, but viewed that as a chance for students and teachers to get to know them.

Now, they’re looking forward to the days to come.

“Building a law enforcement agency, it’s just a unique opportunity to build something from the ground up,” said Josh Crain, who retired from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and now works at Northside Elementary.

He said it’ll take time to build a new police department, but with the varied experiences of the SROs, he’s confident “we’ll build a solid foundation for the community.”

The Woodford County Public Schools Police Department, which will be the fourth largest SRO agency in Kentucky, according to Cole, was “very fortunate to get high-quality, experienced individuals to work in our schools,” said Wells.

“It takes a certain personality to work in schools. And I think all five of those (SROs) have the ability to transition from their previous law enforcement careers and take those experiences, but also apply that to what we want a school resource officer to be. So (we’re) just ecstatic about the quality of person we got for all five of those positions.”

Patrick Shryock, most recently an officer with the Versailles Police Department, was scheduled to begin his duties as SRO at Southside Elementary after Labor Day. He was not present for last Friday’s swearing-in ceremony.

The cost of having five additional SROs in the schools will be about $250,000 to $275,000 in annual salaries, according to schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins.

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