Following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six staff members were killed by a lone gunman, state and federal lawmakers began discussions on how to better protect America’s students.
Several possible solutions emerged from the idea of hiring armed guards or retired military to guard the schools, to the idea of training and arming teachers or principals.
However, to date, nothing concrete has been implemented, with the issue of student safety somewhat sidelined as lawmakers focus on debating Second Amendment rights.
But the Oro Valley Police Department and the town’s taxpayers aren’t waiting on a federal or state-mandated law when it comes to protecting students. They aren’t looking for an example to follow. They are the example, and they have been for quite a while – long before such infamous shootings as Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, or the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook.
It was in 1977 that the voter-approved School Resource Officer program went into effect in Oro Valley, and it still stands strong today.
But as Sgt. Kevin Mattocks, a five-year SRO at Wilson K-8, walks the school’s hallways each day, a different picture emerges from what many might assume about the typical responsibilities of an SRO. Well-armed and well-trained, Mattocks certainly fits the commonly understood mold of an SRO, knowing that his number one priority is to protect the students - all 1,300 of them.
But there’s another side of the program that many may not realize. Mattocks, like the other six SROs that stand watch at Oro Valley’s schools, is more than protection. He is, as his title suggests – a resource.
Each of the five days per week he spends on Wilson’s campus, he is available to answer students’ questions about law enforcement or issues taking place in school, such as bullying, drug issues, or suspicious activity. He acts as a counselor and coach if and when issues arise. And, if necessary, he implements law enforcement. But, as a first line of defense, the goal is to not allow problems to rise to that level.
“A lot of the time, just talking and interacting with these kids thwarts crime,” said Mattocks. “How do you write that as a statistic? The crime didn’t happen. That’s the whole idea of proactive policing and getting involved with people instead of being reactive. You’re there at the inception of the problem versus waiting for it to fester into something big. It’s like when parents are home and involved with their kids’ lives versus waiting until you come home and half the house is burned down.”
In his years as an SRO, Mattocks continues to build trust and relationships with the students at Wilson, so much so that they see him not only as a resource, but a friend – evident as they joked with him in passing, gave him high-fives, or followed up with him on troubling issues.
Oftentimes, students will venture into his office just to talk, and luckily for those students, Mattocks’ office – decorated with police photographs, educational drug charts, and decorative skulls and posters – is enough in itself to prompt conversation.
“I normally don’t have such a chaotic office, but this is what works for them,” said Mattocks. “They look around and they ask questions, and sometimes that conversation turns into something more about what is going on in their lives.”
Mattocks, who freely gives out his cell phone number to students and families, can often be found in the classroom teaching on matters of law enforcement or government.
“We make use of him all the time in our classes,” said Wilson Principal Adrian Hannah. “He is an asset on things that don’t even need police involvement, like bullying, cell phone usage, or inappropriate messages on Facebook.”
In addition, Mattocks spends due time patrolling the school campus by foot or on his bike – though, if he rides through, the hallways, he sometimes gets grief from students.
“They’ll tell me bikes aren’t allowed on campus, and I’ll tell them neither are guns,” joked Mattocks.
But all joking aside, Hannah feels better about the security of his school with Mattocks on campus.
“In today’s time especially, the whole school feels safer knowing an SRO is here,” he said. “I consider myself very fortunate to live in Oro Valley and have that provided to us. I would be at a loss if voters chose to take that privilege away.”
To Oro Valley Mayor Satish Hiremath, the SRO program shows students that police are not the bad guys, and that makes a world of difference.
“From the standpoint of a father with young kids, the SRO program is vitally important,” he said. “This shows you what kind of chief of police we have. He (Chief Daniel Sharp) doesn’t do it simply for safety, though that is a priority. He is really trying to make a difference and instill good character while building respect for the law at a very early age. I am a firm believer that if you have a citizen who respects the law, regardless of age, a lot of these issues wouldn’t happen.”
The Oro Valley Police Department spends $700,000 annually to provide SROs to its five Amphitheater schools. Though a hefty price tag, there is an important question to bear, says Mattocks.
“What price do you put on your community and the safety of your community?” he asked. “When is it cheap enough? When is it too expensive? The question becomes rhetorical. What price do you put on the safety of your kids? I would challenge that any parent would say, ‘Everything I have.’”
To those who don’t have children in Oro Valley schools, Mattocks points out another consideration.
“We are developing the kids that are in your community that potentially could be good for your community or bad for your community,” he said. “Would you rather that we developed them toward being good citizens, or let them run rampid and we’ll go catch them if we can?”
Mattocks knows what he would prefer. And while he says no two days are the same in the life of an SRO, there is one thing that remains consistent – the authentic relationships formed between him and those he befriends, counsels, disciplines, and protects each and every day as he performs his job – a job he absolutely loves.