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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Authorities increasing visits to Kingsport, Sullivan schools


   KINGSPORT — Whether he’s conducting a traffic stop or responding to a domestic dispute, a lot of people aren’t thrilled to see Kingsport Police Department Officer Sean Cornett.

David Grace —

Kingsport Police Department Officer Sean Cornett talks with Jackson Elementary student Abraham Graves on a walk-through of the school this week.

Sometimes children are present to watch him haul away a loved one, leaving a potentially negative image of police in their impressionable minds.

But on a daily basis throughout the city, officers and children alike are enjoying interactions on a more personal, enjoyable level. During the first two months of 2013, members of the KPD conducted more than 350 random walk-throughs at educational facilities, part of an increased emphasis on school safety.

“They love it,” said Andrew Jackson Elementary School Principal Holly Flora. “When they see an officer inuniform walking through the hall, it’s like a rock star is in the building.” The enthusiasm is evident on a Tuesday morning walk-through at Flora’s school. Officer Cornett steps into the gymnasium, giving the students inside a wave of his hand and quick, “Hey, there.” “Look, look,” exclaims one child as she and two others break into a sprint. “Police! Police!” Another student walks past Cornett’s commanding, 6-foot-4-inch frame, slowly directing his gaze from toe to head. He takes in the shined shoes, holstered weapon and gleaming badge. “Whoa,” he murmurs, pushing his glasses back as he passes. “They want to know what tools you carry, some-  times they want to tell you about their homes or family members,” said Cornett with a chuckle. “But it’s good to put a smile on a kid’s face, rather than taking a parent or sibling to jail.”

KPD Lt. Mike Roark said the department has conducted school walk-throughs in the past, but the efforts have taken on a renewed priority following the December school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Multiple officers are now visiting schools within their assigned zones at random times throughout the d a y.

Roark said the community relations aspect of the drop-in visits are an added, welcome bonus to the main goals at hand: increased safety, and possibly peace of mind for parents and school personnel. 
In the event that security is breached, the walk-throughs have provided responding officers with a familiarity of both the facilities and their staffs.

“It’s good to know names,” said Cornett as he walks Jackson Elementary’s halls, tugging every entrance door he passes to ensure it’s firmly closed. He pops his head to the window of some classes, garnering a nod or smile from teachers in front of their pupils.

“We just really appreciate their presence,” said Flora of the response at her school. “It’s a great experience for both the staff and students.”

The Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office has also bolstered walkthroughs at schools throughout the county and echo the KPD’s sentiments on the benefits beyond just s a f e t y.

“It allows officers, especially patrol officers and detectives, to interact with students in a way they usually aren’t able to,” said SCSO Public Information Officer Leslie Earhart. “They have a chance to talk with students and answer questions in a safe environment, which in turn helps us to build a positive relationship with them.”

Shortly before Cornett’s walkthrough at Jackson is complete, he bends down on one knee to speak with a student. A few moments later the boy scurries away to rejoin his classmates in a single file line, a sheepish grin across his face.

As Cornett rises back to his feet, he’s sporting a smile of his own.

“Usually when we see children it’s because something bad has happened,” Cornett said. “The good sometimes doesn’t get to come out — until we get to do something like this.”