While school resource officers became a hot topic in 2018, with all three local districts adding officers, the start of the program here in Blount County arguably can be traced back more than 20 years, to an officer on a bicycle.

When Blount County Sheriff James Berrong asked then-Deputy Jeff Hicks to be part of a community policing initiative in the mid-1990s, he gave the officer a bicycle to ride in Eagleton.

Hicks already had worked with the schools on the DARE program, for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, and he approached then-Principal Jerry Bailey and asked, “Can I have an office here to park my bike and come in and cool off and stuff?”

The value of having an officer on campus became apparent, Hicks said, and in January 1996 the Blount County Sheriff’s Office put on officer at each of the county’s two high schools, making it one of the first in the state with an SRO program, along with Rutherford County.

“Blount County has been at the forefront from the beginning, and Jeff has been a big part of that,” said Mike Herrmann, executive director of school safety and transportation for the Tennessee Department of Education.

“He’s a big hero of mine,” Herrmann said, pointing to Hicks’ participation on Gov. Bill Haslam’s working group formed in spring 2018 to review school safety.

For the past seven years, Hicks has supervised the SRO program in Blount County Schools, but the sergeant retired last week.

Herrmann noted Hicks’ focus on the basics: relationships, communication and planning.

“He’s never lost sight of the importance of building that relationship between the officers and the students,” Herrmann said.

“We’re going to miss him at the state,” he said. “He’s been a tremendous asset.”

A teacher at heart

A 1982 graduate of Alcoa High School, Hicks was working concert security for bands including Poison in the late 1980s when he decided to return home to Blount County and pursue a career in law enforcement.

As Hicks tells the story, one day he woke up and had to look at the phone book in the hotel nightstand to know what city he was in. That’s when he called his father and said he was coming home.

Hicks had earned a degree in education from Maryville College, but the state had a hiring freeze on teachers when he graduated.

He was still in college when someone saw him working out at Primo’s Gym and recruited him to work concert security in Knoxville, an opportunity that included working during the Jackson Victory Tour at Neyland Stadium.

He had worked his way up to planning security when he was offered a position based in Los Angeles. The man told him, “You’ve got a good disposition. You’re intimidating, but you’re nice,” Hicks recalled.

“I got to travel and see the world,” he said.

After attending the law enforcement academy in 1990, Hicks was a patrol officer before being assigned to the bike for the community policing initiative.

“I was like a circus bear,” he said with a laugh.

Blount County Schools Director Rob Britt agreed, saying in a separate interview, “He was a big man to be on a bike.”

When the kids saw Hicks, the officer said, “They thought it was cool I had a bicycle with a blue light on it.”

Although his career has been in law enforcement, “I was a teacher in some ways, “ Hicks said. But “I didn’t have to worry about test scores.”

Securing campuses

“Before there were SROs, the assistant principal really had the full brunt of the safety and security, and we’d have to call in a road officer” when needed, recalled Britt, who was an assistant principal at William Blount High School when the program began.

“They were instrumental in doing some things that made our campuses more safe and secure,” Britt said.

Blount County began its SRO program three years before a school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado took 15 lives and injured 20, rocking the nation.

“That was the first time the nation woke up, and we were already doing it,” Hicks said. “Everybody else was trying to catch up.”

Blount County has hosted training for SROs for decades, and Hicks has spoken to schools across the nation. He also served as president of the Tennessee School Resource Officer Association.

Having an officer in the schools is a natural bridge to reach the students and address issues, he said, both on campus and off.

“We’ve learned about things and we’ve understood what’s going on in the community because of that relationship,” Hicks said.

“A school resource officer is different because they reach outside that fence or that campus, and the students understand that,” he said. “We are in the community, and they see us work patrol.” Students know if something is going on at home or in their neighborhood, they can reach out to the SRO, he added.

Layers of protection

Over the years, the schools, law enforcement agencies and the Blount County Emergency Communications Center have added layers of protection.

In 2010, for example, the Text-a-Tip program began, giving students an anonymous way to report issues. Within its first six months, the program was credited with preventing a suicide, and well as collecting information on bullying, child abuse, drugs and fights, according to articles in the Daily Times archives.

Students still use it daily, Hicks said.

Instead of just one or two officers on campus, that program adds hundreds more eyes of people who can “see something, say something,” he noted.

Today, students even will send screen shots of what’s happening on social media, problems the schools and law enforcement officers might have no idea about otherwise.

When a principal was held hostage at Montvale School in 1999 by a student with a gun, law enforcement officers had to rely on the assistant principal drawing a sketch of the office. Today, cameras in schools send a live view to the Blount County E-911 Center, and emergency responders can access virtual floor plans, with still camera views of classrooms and a map of any hazardous materials.

While once officers had to review VHS tapes from cameras in schools if there was an issue, today the schools have access to Avigilon video analytics technology.

“We can teach the cameras what to look for,” Hicks explained.

However, none of the technology replaces what an officer can offer by being on campus. “You can’t replace the personal contact every day,” Hicks said.

The SROs are on campus from before students arrive until after school ends.

At the elementary schools, Hicks said, “Some of them are like Walmart greeters,” welcoming students and family members by name.

Throughout the day they interact with students in the classrooms and walk the perimeter, something Hicks did for a decade at Heritage High School. “That’s why I have two bad knees and a bad back,” he said.

At the elementary school, they might be helping open milk cartons in the lunch room or tying a student’s shoes. “It’s not in their job description, but they do it,” he said, reinforcing the image that a law enforcement officer is someone who will help them.

Many SROs also help coach athletic teams, something Hicks did at Eagleton.

The students are accustomed to seeing the officers not only in school but also in the community.

“My wife won’t take me to Walmart, she won’t take me to the mall, she won’t take me anywhere,” Hicks said. “All the SROs are like that. Every time they go out somewhere, everybody knows them, even if they’re out of uniform, they get recognized,” he said.

“My wife just keeps pushing the buggy and leaves me.”

Even on vacation at Disney World, a Blount County SRO has received a shout-out from a student.

Middle school is a highly influential time, when SROs can develop relationships, offer advice and reinforce lessons about being respectful and polite to others. “I wish we had more time to be in the classroom,” Hicks said.

“High school is reactive,” he said. “It’s wide open.”

As the schools continue to look at ways to improve safety and security, Britt said the county probably could use a third officer at each high school and a second at each of the four middle schools, and he’d like to see them work more with students on anti-bullying and anti-drug education.

Just having an officer’s car in the parking lot can have a calming effect.

“The best weapon in the world is your people skills,” Hick said, particularly listening.

When people are upset, he said, “they’re there to be the Dr. Phil and hopefully not the Jerry Springer.”

The officers also know what’s going on in the community, so they might know before the school hears, for example, that a student’s family has been in a motor vehicle accident. All the SROs have worked patrol first, so they are familiar with the neighborhoods.

They work closely with the Department of Children’s Service and the Family Resource Center, too, to help families that are struggling.

“Some students, the only stability they have is during school,” Hicks said. “Some of these kids you want to take home.”

One time he did, with Hicks and his wife welcoming a student into their home until she could transition to living with another family member. “{span style=”color: #000000;”}We took her in and gave her foster care when she didn’t have anything,” he said.{/span}

SROs from different districts also communicate, such as checking on a new student who transfers into the district. “We reach out all the time and build that network,” he said.

During the course of a year, Britt said, school resource officers deter hundreds of events. For example, he said, “we have less fights in our schools because he have SROs there.”

The SRO program also does more than protect the schools. “We solve so many crimes that have not even been reported yet,” the sheriff said.

With his retirement from BCSO, Hicks isn’t leaving school security. Instead he’ll be working for NaviGate Prepared, the software company local schools use to monitor actions such as evacuations during drills.

In his first month on the job, he’ll be traveling to schools in Ohio, Arizona, Texas and Louisiana.

Hicks said he’ll miss being in the know about what’s happening in the local community, but not the calls at all hours of the day and night.

When he began as an SRO, he might have to walk outside the school to get reception on a radio. Now alerts come in on his watch, and he has to charge his cellphone twice a day. When a threat was made a few weeks ago in an online gaming forum in Finland, the alert was transferred through Interpol to Washington, D.C., and before the threat was pinpointed within Tennessee, Blount County decided to take the precaution of putting students on a “soft lockdown.”

Hicks has been with the SRO program long enough that today’s students hear from their parents that he was their officer. He says it’s time to leave, before the students are hearing those stories from their grandparents.

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