Since the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Oak Ridge Schools and the Oak Ridge Police Department (ORPD) last August, a number of significant safety improvements have occurred within our schools including physical security upgrades, leadership adjustments, and increased police presence.
As you may know, this time last year, we had only one School Resource Officer (SRO) covering our entire school district. Now we have two full time SROs, two Support Services Unit (SSU) officers manning satellite offices, and the Adopt-a-Cop program, which provides officer time in all of our schools via daily check-ins. A third satellite office is in the works as ORPD Chief Jim Akagi and Superintendent Bruce Borchers are presently working on stationing an SSU officer at Robertsville Middle School.
Chief Akagi recently invited me to join our SROs on a walk-along at the high school to personally observe the impact of these changes. He also encouraged me to tag along with our S.W.A.T. team during a threat assessment exercise. I took him up on both offers and, as a result, am sharing what I learned.
During my walk-along, Officers Sherrill Selby and Mike Swigert reinforced Chief Akagi’s declaration that the MOU has increased awareness and improved communications between students, staff, administrators, and police. They reported that attitudes and responses have shifted for the better. Staff now proactively approach the SROs with their concerns and are collaborating on a variety of solutions, including building access controls, increased hall monitoring, and unannounced K9 patrols.
Halfway through our walk, Sergeant Jeremy Huddleston joined us. His satellite office is strategically located at a juncture formerly known for large crowds and frequent fights. This co-location, in conjunction with greater visibility of staff between classes, has caused most of those problems to dissipate.
Sergeant Huddleston was quick to praise our SROs for developing relationships with many of our students. They are forging important bonds of trust through regular one-on-one interactions and mentorship efforts. This was evident to me when I saw students high-fiving them and greeting them by name. It was also reassuring to see students view law enforcement in a more positive light than an intimidating one.
My respect for our police officers deepened even more when Sergeant Huddleston shared stories of their outreach efforts. Both SROs and their fellow officers went the extra mile recently when, during frigid weather, some had spotted children at bus stops without coats. In response, they initiated their own coat drive. This is just one example, of many I am sure, of our officers going above and beyond their mission to “Protect and Serve.”
After completing my walk with the SROs, that same evening, I accompanied Captain Robin Smith and the S.W.A.T. team as they familiarized themselves with the physical layout of the high school and strategized responses to potential active-shooter scenarios. During this time, they also shared insights into what they are learning at joint training initiatives and the application thereof. I won’t go into detail, but will say that it was eye-opening and invaluable to their assessment process.
While talking about school shootings is unsettling, observing this training exercise in the very school my son attended (and that my daughter will eventually attend) was hardly pleasant. But open discussion and continued training are necessary given the reality of the world we now live in.
This activity was part of Chief Akagi’s broader vision to extensively train all of his force to respond to such circumstances. His goal is for the Oak Ridge Police Department to eventually become distinguished for its expertise in equipping and training certified personnel for a robust and aggressive response to active shooter situations not just in school settings, but across the board in public areas and facilities.
Open dialogue and sharing of information between our governing bodies has diffused tensions and set the stage for us to better identify our weaknesses and implement meaningful solutions. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but I do believe that we are on the right track toward providing Oak Ridge students with a safer learning environment.
I want to thank Chief Akagi, Dr. Borchers, and their respective staffs for their willingness to acknowledge our problems and for their leadership in addressing them head on. I also want to thank Officers Mike Swigert, Sherrill Selby, Nathan Gibson, Brandan Sharp, Brandan Elkins, Matt Johnston, Sergeants Jeremy Huddleston and Roy Heinz, and Lieutenants Brad Jenkins and Matt Tedford for graciously allowing me a glimpse into their vital work. And to all of our Oak Ridge Police Department, I want to express my sincerest gratitude to you and your families for your daily sacrifices in protecting our community!