Officer educates as well as protects at Stonewall Middle
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - As students swarm the halls of Stonewall Jackson Middle School on a recent rainy morning, a tall boy makes his way over to Charleston Police Cpl. Stacy Loftis.
Loftis sees the student approaching and notices what he's carrying. A look of dismay spreads across his face.
The grinning student hands over a scarlet sweatshirt, the words "Ohio State" emblazoned on the front. An ardent University of Michigan fan, Loftis had bet the student his Wolverines would best the Buckeyes in a recent basketball game. He lost.
"Hang onto it until Friday. I'll wear it then," Loftis said.
Loftis is wearing his standard issue uniform from the Charleston Police Department, complete with body armor and gun.
But Loftis doesn't spend his time as Stonewall's Prevention Resource Officer waiting to shoot potential attackers.
"Unfortunately people just think a police officer comes in and guards the school, and that's not it," he said.
His role, like that of the more than 60 other Prevention Resource Officers in the state, includes prevention, mentoring and safety.
Prevent illegal acts by students through education. Mentor students through constant interaction. Provide safety by patrolling the school and grounds.
The position has become a vital one to the Stonewall community.
Loftis, 38, is a 14-year veteran of the police department. He has patrolled Charleston's East End, worked in a special enforcement drug unit and spent seven years on the department's SWAT team.
But his training to become a Prevention Resource Officer - or PRO, as they're commonly known - was his first exposure to public speaking training. That helped him successfully teach 37 classes this school year, touching on a variety of topics outside the normal curriculum.
His classes deal with topics like sexual harassment, drugs and conflict resolution. That's just as important for students as science or reading, said eighth-grade math teacher Jessica Austin.
"It's not something really taught," Austin said. "It's something they're dealing with every day."
Austin welcomed Loftis into her classroom to complete a lesson he had recently started about dating and domestic violence. In his second lesson, Loftis talked to Austin's 14 students about the dangers of keeping such relationships a secret.
He recounts recent stories involving domestic violence. He spares no details, discussing rapes and murders that stemmed from the relationships. The lessons need to stick with the eighth graders, Loftis said: the students are about to be or already are at dating age, and it could save their lives.
"It teaches us kids about what we need to be looking into and how to handle it," said Miaha, a 13-year-old eighth-grade girl who heard Loftis' presentation.
Miaha scribbled furiously during the presentation, and said she took three pages of notes the last time Loftis came to the class. Other students also said they thought the presentation was useful, citing personal experiences with domestic violence.
Classes aren't confined to the school. Occasionally, Loftis takes small groups of students to Tiger Morton Juvenile Detention Center in Dunbar. The trips help students see their actions have consequences.
By educating youngsters about poor decision-making and giving them examples of mistakes other teens have made, they have an opportunity to avoid that path, Loftis said.
"They have an opportunity to make better decisions."
Loftis believes the lessons work. He got confirmation they did so for at least one student. In the hallway a student approached Loftis to show him potentially inappropriate text messages the student had received.
Students should approach Loftis, and he welcomes it. For that to happen, however, he needs to foster relationships with students and let them know he's accessible.
As Loftis approaches the door of his office, a student he recognizes walks by. The student smiles.
"I've never seen you smile! You have the prettiest smile," Loftis said. "You're always walking around like you're mad all the time."
He's quick to joke with other students in the hallways or in the lunchroom, and students approach him freely. One rubs his mostly bald head while passing in the hall.
Unless he establishes a rapport with students, they'll never feel comfortable talking or listening to him. Doing so lets students interact with a police officer in a familiar and unthreatening setting, crucial for the officer and students alike, Loftis said.
"We've got juveniles that have a negative outlook on the police. We want to bridge that gap by getting them to see that as a police officer, we're here to help them," Loftis said.
"We're not here to pick on them or, you know, we want them to see that we're here in a positive light."
Some days Loftis will wear khakis and a polo shirt to show students that officers are people apart from the uniform. Overall, he thinks few students dislike law enforcement.
Both Miaha and Rajah, another eighth-grade girl, said he had changed their perception of police.
"I don't like seeing police officers. He's the only one," Rajah, 13, said. "He's a good person and I appreciate him."
In addition to his daily conversations with students, Loftis is also a participant in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. That was a requirement of the PRO program, and he was a little nervous when he joined. After meeting his student, his perception changed.
The student is doing better in school since joining the program, and Loftis enjoys spending time with the student. He and his wife took the student to a Christmas party through the program, and Loftis planned to take the student to the movies.
Other students might not see that work. But teachers and principals do.
"He's not just looked at as a police officer in the building. He plays many roles. He helps counsel students. He helps with discipline whenever those things arise. He's checking the building all the time. If anything goes on in the community over the weekends, he knows about it," said Stonewall Principal Donnell Gilliam.
Keeping his ear open and to the ground is an important part of Loftis' third duty as a PRO: protection.
Jessica Austin flipped off the lights in her classroom. Students crawled on the floor, silently huddling against the wall furthest from the door. Another teacher flipped the shades on a window.
It took less than 20 seconds.
Loftis and the Stonewall community take lockdown drills very seriously
"We've even tested some of the teachers, knocking on the doors, saying, 'Let me in,' just to see what they would do," Loftis said. "None of them make a sound; they don't open the door. The teachers are really good about knowing the procedures here."
Lockdowns are a part of the safety plan Loftis helped beef up when he came to the school this year. Recent events like the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school show the importance of having such procedures, he said.
That doesn't mean it's impossible to protect a school without a PRO, Gilliam said. But having a police perspective when it comes to designing and carrying out such plans is a benefit any school would appreciate.
"It's not that we don't feel safe, it's just the fact that that's an extra safety factor there on top of the relationships he build with the students," Gilliam said. "He's a definite asset to the building."
Austin said she never feels unsafe in the building, a sentiment echoed by her students. Loftis can't be everywhere, but Austin said the procedures in place at the school make her confident she won't be harmed.
Being asked to carry a gun would not make her feel that way.
"If I have to carry a gun, I think it would be time to leave the profession," said Austin, a teacher at Stonewall for the last six years.
Austin does know teachers who would favor being allowed to carry a gun. Calls for armed personnel in schools, most notably from the National Rifle Association, arose following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Right now it's illegal to carry a gun anywhere on school property in West Virginia, Gilliam said. Even if that weren't the case, he wouldn't want more firearms at the school.
Loftis is also against the idea. Teachers already have too much to worry about, he said.
"There's more to carrying a gun than just going out on a firing range for a few hours a week or a day," Loftis said. "Gun retention would be a big issue: How well is that person trained in retaining their gun if someone tried to take it?"
Several times a day Loftis walks the halls of the building to make sure the exterior doors are locked. He also pays attention to things that might be happening in the community and can tip off administrators if there's a situation that involves a student or a student's family.
Working with Loftis, and practicing his plans, is enough, Gilliam said.
"It would definitely make me feel uneasy if anyone other than Officer Loftis or another officer had a gun or any weapon in the building. I don't want any weapon in the building other than his," the principal said.
Loftis is prepared to protect the school in the case of an emergency. But that's not the only reason he's in the school.
From traveling to away games with the school's sports teams to sitting in on disciplinary hearings, Loftis' goals are similar to those of any other teacher: he wants to see his students grow, learn and succeed.