A school resource officer’s duty: Build trust and protect the kids

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE)– Without knowing all the details behind the shooting at Austin-East Magnet High Monday afternoon, a former Knox County Sheriff said he knows the school resource officer did his job.

Knoxville Police officer Adam Willson was shot while responding to an armed student at the school.

Officers located the suspect in a school bathroom after responding to a report of a possibly armed individual at Austin-East High School after 3 p.m. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said the suspect fired shots as the officers entered the restroom, striking an officer–Officer Willson.

One officer returned fire.

Tim Hutchison, former Knox County Sheriff, said school resource officers–those who are certified law enforcement officers–have to have a different mindset working in schools.

He said the campus is like their little community.

“If you catch people breaking the law, if you catch people with the drugs, if you catch people, these young students, doing things they shouldn’t then you deal with it just like you would out on the street,” Hutchison said.

Part of learning how to protect their community involves building relationships, and building trust.

That’s according to Officer Willson himself, when 6 On Your Side spoke with him in 2019.

“Violence is scary. We don’t want to be around violence but we need to have the same, ‘I know what to do about it and I know how to go about getting safe from that or getting away from that,'” Willson said.

Hutchison said creating that trust is vital for an SRO’s job.

“These police officers in these schools, create a bond with a lot of the students. And you know, that’s important on getting information as to what student may have a gun, or may have a knife with them on that particular day,” Hutchison said.

Hutchison said a police officer in a school has similar duties to those patrolling the streets, but with one big difference: they’re patrolling hallways and classrooms filled with kids.

“You’re working with children, and these kids in high school don’t like to think of themselves as children, but they’re teenagers,” Hutchison said.

Hutchison said that perspective changes though, when a weapon or illegal substances are involved.

Back when resource officers were first placed in school, Hutchison said law enforcement’s main threat was thought to have been coming from outside.

“Now they’re having to deal with, ‘which one of these students is carrying a gun,'” Hutchison said.

In 2019, Willson noted the differences in patrolling in schools as well, focusing on the changing security measures they’ve added.

“I think we use cameras a whole lot more than we used to, and I think that’s a good thing in the schools for security. We’re using door locks in ways that we didn’t before. So, classroom doors being locked, so vital to security. Keeping entry points, singular and multiple entry points into a school, monitored and secured,” added Officer Willson.

If a serious incident happens, Hutchison said SROs have to go back to their training.

“It’s a person with a handgun and you have to treat that as a lethal threat. And it’s important, and the police officers are trained to do that,” Hutchison said.

Hutchison said as soon as an officer hears about a threat, such as a student with a gun, in the school, they immediately call for backup and try to get as much information as possible before confronting the subject.

In Monday’s shooting, officials said the student was in a bathroom.

Hutchison said that could be one of the most dangerous places for an officer to confront a possibly armed suspect.

“You’re coming through one door. You could be a target the instant you start crossing the threshold, and yes, an officer is going to realize, ‘I’m at risk entering this bathroom right now, and someone’s in there with a gun,'” Hutchison said.

Hutchison said it’s sad to see gun violence at a school, and in the community, continue after all these years since he’s retired.

But, without knowing the details leading up to what happened at Austin-East High on Monday, he said he believes the officers knew what they were doing, especially since no other student died.

“If it was his goal to shoot some students then, you know, the best person for him to encounter early on was a police officer who could take that threat out. And he did. The police officer did a good job,” Hutchison said.

Knoxville Police officials gave an update on Willson’s condition Tuesday, saying he was recovering from surgery and was in good spirits.

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