Keeping AECC Safe

There are multiple levels of safety within a school – feeling safe emotionally, feeling safe to make a mistake in class and then learn from that mistake, and, most importantly, feeling physically safe in a learning environment.  

Often, the awareness of “feeling safe” isn’t something that is at the forefront of most people’s minds; it’s the awareness of potential danger that can cause stress and be a hindrance to learning. The best barometer of students feeling safe in their school is when the students aren’t thinking about the issue of safety at all; they are simply allowed to be kids and learn to the best of their abilities.  

In Haywood County Schools, a School Resource Officer (SRO) is placed on every campus to ensure the physical safety of all students.  SRO’s are trained police officers who have graduated from The Tennessee Law Enforcement Academy and have previous experience as a law enforcement officer.  

The job of an SRO requires a specialized skill set that sets them apart from police officers who are on patrol within a community.  SRO’s must have the ability to build relationships with students, engage with teachers, and, above all, help protect everyone in the school building.

At Anderson Early Childhood Center and the Student Options Academy, Gage Mansfield takes his job as SRO seriously.  Gage is a law enforcement veteran of ten years spending time in Kansas City and other areas in Missouri before joining the Brownsville Police Department last year.  Before becoming an officer, Gage also spent time in executive protection where he provided personal security to  high profile clientele.  

“I’ve been in law enforcement for ten years.  I worked in Kansas City and then smaller departments in Missouri after that,” Gage explained.  “Before getting into law enforcement, I was involved in executive protection which is a service that provides high profile people with personal protection during trips or events or things of that nature.”

As a child, Gage would listen to his grandfather tell him stories about what being a police officer was like.  From the first time he heard his grandfather speak about being in law enforcement, Gage knew he wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.  Gage also spent a lot of time around young children because his parents ran a preschool, so his placement at Anderson seemed to be destined.

“My grandad was a police officer back in the 1950’s and he would talk to me about it all the time. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be in law enforcement,” Gage recalled. “My parents used to run a daycare and a preschool.  I’ve always been around kids, so being at Anderson feels like home to me.”

Being in a school setting as a police officer has been quite different than being on patrol in the community.  Gage enjoys the Monday through Friday schedule and the 8 hour shifts as opposed to the 12 hour shifts he had on patrol.  More than anything else, though, he loves being around the kids at Anderson and seeing the positive ways he can interact with them on a daily basis.

“I get bombarded by the kids all the time.  They run up and hug me and see my radio.  There are some kids at Anderson who I’ll give a badge to if they’ve had a good week and they walk around the school with me on Friday’s when I check the halls and the doors.  They love doing that,” he said.  “It’s very important to build relationships with kids this age.  I want them to respect adults and law enforcement, but I really don’t want them to be afraid of law enforcement.  I want to show them that we’re here to help keep them safe.”

A big part of keeping the students and staff safe at Anderson is building trust with them and also constantly monitoring the physical environment at the school.  As a trained officer, Gage is naturally aware of safety issues that most civilians would never think about – a door propped open, a door mistakenly left unlocked, a window that’s maybe not shut all the way. As the SRO at Anderson, Gage knows it’s his responsibility to make sure things are corrected as soon as possible and that conversations occur about the importance of safety.

“First thing I do when I get to Anderson is walk the perimeter – I do that before I even walk into the building.  I check every door to make sure it’s shut and locked.  If one happens to be ajar or unlocked, I shut it and lock it and then talk to the person responsible about it.  I want to make sure everything is secure,” he explained.  “I’ll walk the perimeter of the playground, too. I walk about five miles a day around Anderson.”

While it’s important to have conversations and reiterate safety procedures in a school building, practice makes perfect. Students practice fire drills, tornado drills, and even earthquake drills.  They also practice intruder drills.  Students and staff are prepared to act should a worst-case school safety situation occur – an intruder entering the building.  

Each school in HCS practices a school intruder drill once a year as required by state law.  However, schools can practice intruder drills as many times as they would like under the building leader’s discretion.  The SRO’s at each school play an integral role in these intruder drills, and Gage was more than pleased with the way the drill played out at Anderson.

“We did an intruder drill here a few weeks ago.  It went very well.  The principal announced the drill and teachers locked and closed all doors.  We went around and checked each door and window and made sure everything was in place in regards to safety,” he said. “Our students and teachers passed the drill with flying colors.”

As Gage continues to adapt to being in a school setting, he is very clear on what his main priority is at Anderson and the Student Options Academy – student and staff safety.

“When you’re on patrol, you’re enforcing the law and holding everyone accountable including the officers you’re working with.  In a school, my main priority is keeping kids safe and the staff safe.  That’s the job,” he said.  “In the end, the bottom line is that our students and staff are safe.  It’s all about safety.”