There’s no way to bridge that gap between law enforcement and civilians if you aren’t approachable.Effingham County Sheriff's Office Sgt. John Peny
SPRINGFIELD — Deputy Mike Kendricks, Cpl. Randy Brown and Sgt. John Peny of the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office are infinitely more likely to offer arresting words of encouragement than to haul someone to jail.
They are school resource officers, meaning they are a teacher, counselor and law enforcement officer rolled into one.
Kendricks recently received a note of thanks from a South Effingham High School student who credited the deputy for persuading him to remain in school.
The note said, “Hey, I am extremely excited to tell you that I am graduating. I also would like to thank you for your support and words of wisdom, and inspiration.”
Kendricks was touched by the gesture.
“Looking back, when we got back from Christmas break, it seemed like his drive and ambition to complete high school was slowly but surely fading,” Kendricks said. “Graduating was the least of his concerns. Life events had him concerned and stressed.”
The student was overwhelmed by a sense of loss and newfound responsibility that most children don’t have. His father was ill and his mother had recently died.
“He was trying to help his family out and graduate at the same time,” Kendricks said. “He was trying to figure out life. He had always been an upbeat kid but it got to where graduating wasn’t his biggest priority.”
Kendricks kept tabs on the youngster throughout the school year, talking to him multiple times per week. During each conversation, the student revealed his discontent.
“I’d say, ‘Look, brother. You are this close to the finish line. There is no sense in hanging it up now,’” Kendricks said while holding his forefinger and thumb an inch apart. I just kept reiterating to him that he needed to graduate.”
Kendricks, Brown and Peny, who are POST (Police Officers Standards and Training) certified, have encountered similar situations numerous times.
“From our experience in law enforcement, we can recognize some of those kids who come from troubled families,” Kendricks said. “Their parents may have legal problems. Some may have a substance problem.
“I’ve got kids — and I’m sure Brown and Peny are the same way — who will come up and start talking to me like we are old buddies. They are not afraid to talk to us. They look up to us.”
Resource officers, who are paid in part by the Effingham County School District, frequently give more than advice. A few years ago, Peny and his wife bought a class ring for a student.
“We try to help out a student every year,” Peny said. “He had some issues and got in trouble. It wasn’t anything major.”
Peny sympathized with the student because one momentary lapse in judgement knocked him off track. He had an inappropriate reaction after his glasses were broken while playing basketball.
“He got upset and nobody knew how to handle it,” Peny said. “I kind of dealt with it, de-escalating. I talked to him a little bit and asked him how his graders were.
“He said, ‘Well, I’m not sure. My math grade is a little low.’”
The student doubted he was going to graduate but Peny encouraged him to keep studying. Later, Peny learned that the student had purchased a cap and gown but not a class ring.
“He said he didn’t have the money for a ring. He said he didn’t want one,” Peny said. “I asked him if he would get one if he had the chance. He said, ‘I would if I could pass.’ “I told him, ‘If you will hold up your end of it, we will buy you a class ring.’
“Every day that I’ve seen that kid since he graduated, he waves. If we are somewhere, he will come up and speak. It just made a huge impact.”
The officers constantly go out of their way to let students know they are ready and willing to help.
“We have to be approachable,” Peny said. “There is no way to bridge that gap between law enforcement and civilians if you aren’t approachable. That goes for adults and children.”
The line of communication is almost always filled with lots of questions.
“I speak to kids everyday,” Peny said. Some come to me with family issues. Some come to me and want some legal advice. They see us there all the time so they are more comfortable coming to speak with us.
“Even with parents and teachers, it’s the same way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a teacher say, ‘Hey! I’d like to talk to you for a minute.
“Those situations could range from issues at home. You just kind of lend them an ear, hear what they have to say and offer up a suggestion.”
Kendricks is extremely familiar with South Effingham students. He spent three years with them at nearby South Effingham Middle School before moving to the high school last fall.
Brown and Peny have experience at both levels, too. They have been a school resource officer for 11 and eight years, respectively.
“Middle school is funny,” Kendricks said. “When the kids first get to middle school, they still have a lot of elementary school in them. In this county, some of them have been on an elementary campus for seven years — from pre-K all the way to fifth grade — and they didn’t have a deputy on campus.
“I’ve had them come up to me with a confused look and ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ I’ve had some students think my uniform is a costume.”
Brown added, “(Some middle schoolers) will say, ‘Is that a real gun?’ I’ve had that happen with high schoolers.”
As the years pass, however, the students lose their naivete.
“They get used to seeing you and some are a little more sociable than others,” Kendricks said. “They will start to branch out and talk to you. Eventually, you may have an issue that involves them and that may bleed to the law enforcement side — whether it be a criminal issue or a child welfare issue, etc.
“By the time they get to the eighth grade, you generally don’t have a problem talking to them. They will reach out to you. At least a majority of them will.”
South Effingham and Effingham County high schools each have two resource officers, which is helpful, Brown said.
“Sometimes people will talk to (Kendricks) and won’t even approach me — or vice versa,” said Brown, who is assigned to South Effingham.
Peny, who works with Chauncy Blige at Effingham County, agreed, explaining that it makes it less likely for a child to slip through the cracks.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Some of the kids won’t talk to me because of the way I’m manufactured.”
The resource officers are trained to deal with children who might be having suicidal thoughts. They know where to go to get help for them.
“The schools already have a group and a program to handle that but, because we are there, we are an avenue where they might be able to expedite the situation,” Peny said.
The resource officers said most problems in Effingham County schools start off campus.
“We deal with a lot of social media issues,” Peny said. “It may not have happened at school but it is brought to school.”
Resource officers report to school at 7 a.m. They direct traffic before school starts and then spend much of the day patrolling the facility, being careful not to establish a routine.
“We have to change it up,” Brown said. “We have to be smarter than the students. We have to stay ahead of the game.
“We don’t like to be reactive. We are not wrapped that way. We like to head stuff off at the pass. That’s what we are trained to do.”
A healthy relationships with students is a key to preventing crime in the schools, the trio said.
“We have students provide us with helpful information all the time,” Brown explained.
“I’ve had them come to me about drugs, bullying — you name it,” Peny added. “I’ve had them come to me about issues they have at home, things like their dad were drinking and beat their mom up.”
“Or beat them up,” Brown interjected.
Brown said resource officers encounter the same issues in schools that patrol officers deal with on the road in the county.
“When high school kids do something illegal, a lot of it is adult crimes,” Kendricks said. “The older they get, the more likely they are to think that they are grown. The occasional fight sometimes turns into a criminal battery.”
Kendricks said middle-school infractions are rarely criminal. They are more likely to be a violation of school policy, he explained.
When students go awry, thanks to an agreement between Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie and the Effingham County Magistrate Court, they can be charged under county ordinances instead of state ones.
“So it punishes them at that level, but it doesn’t stay with them,” Peny said. “As soon as it’s over and they clear the court system, there is no record. They are not fingerprinted and they aren’t booked.
“It’s handled inside our county and it doesn’t hinder folks on background checks or jobs in the future. We pushed hard for that to help the youth because we understand things are going to happen.
“We understand that if you are at Wal-Mart and get in a fist fight, you are going to jail. But we don’t always think that — if you get in a fist fight at school over something stupid — you should be arrested.”
Occasionally, the resource officers provide classroom instruction. Subjects include those that promote safety and a lifestyle free of alcohol and drugs.
“Any opportunity that we get to do that, we try to take advantage of it,” Peny said.
Kendricks, Brown and Peny admitted that they felt a void in their life after schools closed in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s one of those things where you are involved in these kids lives whether it’s direct or not,” Peny said. “They see you there and they know someone you can come to.”
Kendricks and Brown make no bones about their ardent support of the Mustangs athletic teams. The officers frequently top their uniforms with a cardinal South Effingham cap.
Peny is a strong backer of the Rebels but is much more reserved than his cross-county counterparts.
“I get just as involved with the kids sports wise. It’s good to see them evolve,” he said.
The good about their job outweighs the bad by a wide margin, the trio agreed.
“There is not a day goes by that there isn’t a smile on my face or I’m laughing with a kid about something or another,” Kendricks said.