A woman and a man stand by a table where a dog is sitting

Menifee Central Principal Kelli Abney (left) stands with School Resource Officer Aaron Brown (right) and the school’s emotional support dog, Ase.
Photo submitted by Aaron Brown

Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a series on Kentucky Teacher about educational support staff.

School resources officers (SROs) across Kentucky play a critical role in keeping schools and students safe. But their role is a unique and dynamic one, of law enforcement and security while building relationships with the students they help protect.

As Crittenden County SRO John Shofner says, “They’re supposed to run to me, not from me.”

In 2019, the Kentucky General Assembly passed the School Safety and Resiliency Act, which took action to address school safety by establishing new roles at the district and state level, including district school safety coordinators and the state school security marshal. It also set the precedent for SRO assignment to schools, funding permitted.

With February marking School Resource Officer Appreciation Day, meet three SROs in the Commonwealth who are going above and beyond each day to not only protect students, but support them and encourage their success.

Menifee County SRO uses support animal to connect with students

At Menifee County Central, a K-8 school in the district, School Resource Officer Aaron Brown brings a support dog with him to work that helps him make a connection with students. The dog, Ase, is a four-month-old goldendoodle.

Prior to his role with the school district, Brown worked for the Kentucky State Police. Later, he became a trainer at an equine therapy center, training horses to support individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Brown said he has experienced the benefits of support animals through his own dog, Callie. He brought her to school in a holiday-themed hat on the last day of instruction before winter break. 

“There was one student that I’d had several interactions with that weren’t on the most positive terms,” he said. “I had been trying to foster that relationship with him and I wasn’t gaining any ground. I took Callie to see him and immediately there was a connection between the two.”

The connection between Callie and the student allowed for Brown to connect with him, too.

“We were able to have an engaged conversation for a couple of minutes. It took away the barrier between him and I,” he said.

The interaction he had with the student was impactful, Brown said. It inspired him to establish a program to bring a trained support animal into his school building.

“I contacted my wife and said, ‘Hey, what’s one more dog? We’ve already got four, plus five horses,’” he said. “I took the role of being the handler, I drafted the policy for using the dog in the school system and he comes with me to work every day.”

Brown said Ase supports students in many ways, including when they are struggling to control their emotions.

“The kids absolutely love him. When a parent is dropping a kid off and the kid’s crying, they’re upset, they don’t want to go to school, I bring him out. They help walk Ase into the building. It gets them distracted, gets them into the building, gets them back on their educational day,” he said.

“If a student has some type of a social-emotional crisis in school, the counselors know that they can contact me. I’ll take Ase to their office, drop Ase off and he’s there while they’re assisting the student through the situation. And he’s there to get scratches, play or do whatever it is he needs to do.”

SRO in Crittenden County creates culture of good behavior and trust – through candy

John Shofner began his law enforcement career in 1989 at the Earle C. Clements Job Corps Center in Morganfield.

He later spent years in positions spanning from the sheriff’s department in Union County and as chief of police in Morganfield.

In 2018, he became the SRO in Crittenden County. He said his experience makes him a seasoned officer with the experience necessary for the role.

When he began working in the school, though, he noticed many students were not talkative with him.

“They wouldn’t clown and joke around with me much. I asked one of the teachers and she told me they were scared of me. I said, ‘Well, I can’t have that,’” he said. “I started buying bubble gum and suckers.”

He used the candy to build relationships with the students.

“I’d say, ‘Hey, would you like a piece of bubble gum?’ And over the years it’s just built up. I have a bunch of high school students who stop in my office to get candies and bubble gum and that’s part of the relationship-building,” he said. “I said I cannot have kids scared of me. They’re supposed to run to me, not from me.”

He rewards students for their hard work with candy, especially those who struggle with their behavior.

“I’ve talked with the teachers, and they bring me copies of their schoolwork when they’ve scored good. I usually make out an envelope, a candy packet, and put multiple pieces of candy in there for them. I want them included. I can’t leave any child out,” he said.

Building relationships with all the students through candy has produced meaningful change in the district’s culture, encouraging students to behave well and fostering a relationship of trust between Shofner and students.

LaRue County SRO: ‘I’m going to protect them with everything I have’

LaRue County School Resource Officer Kevin Bennett serves four schools. He found his way into law enforcement and public safety by volunteering as a firefighter.

Like Brown and Shofner, his past experiences inform his work as an SRO.

He starts his days outside at an elementary school, directing traffic and ensuring students arrive safely to the building. From there, he heads to the high school, where he spends most of his time.

“As soon as traffic is over with at the elementary school, I come directly to the high school,” he said. “I come in the front doors, talk with the students. As soon as the bell rings, I do a safety check every single morning. I walk to all the doors and make sure all the ground doors are secure and locked.”

While his office is based at the high school, Bennett uses technology to monitor all his schools closely. He also visits them frequently and as needs arise. 

“I walk throughout the middle school and do the same thing: check the doors, talk amongst the children,” he said.

He walks through the same halls now as he did during his time as a student. Bennett said growing up in LaRue County gave him a valuable perspective. Keeping students safe is personal for him.

“The community supports me. They know what type of person I am,” he said. “When I first started here, I knew some of the staff. Some of them were here when I was in school. But there’s a lot of new faces.”

For Bennett, though, his duty is centered around providing support to students and protecting them from danger.

“I’m very involved with the kids who are having issues, struggling in classes. I ask them if they need help,” he said. “I think they realize that I’m here to help. I’m here to protect them. I tell them that.”