When Olivia Keys walks onto the campus of Meridian High School, she says she feels a sense of security as she’s greeted by the school’s police officers.
"I feel like when you do have a problem you can go to the security guards," Keys said, adding that the officers are more than just police officers.
Senior Jhamir Adams said he feels that same sense of safety, and considers the officers members of his family.
“Yeah, they are very positive,” Adams said. “Especially for me since I didn't have a father figure, they are someone I look up to.”
The Meridian Public School District Police Department wants to change how young people perceive law enforcement. It’s not just about carrying a badge and a gun. It’s about developing relationships with students and the community.
In 2013, the district established its own police department to address school safety issues.
The department, which uses school resource officers and school security officers, operates independently from the Meridian Police Department and the Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Department. It is one of a handful of police departments located within school districts in the state, joining other school districts such as Tupelo, Jackson, Biloxi and Vicksburg.
Chief Ricardo Clayton said officers wear three hats: one as law enforcement officers, another as educators, and a third as mentors.
“We are not there just to be an armed individual,” Clayton said. “Our jobs are to make people safe, make connections with our community and bridge gaps.”
Those connections are important, said MHS student Kalayin Senis, who describes the officers on campus as relatable.
"We can talk to them,” Senis said. “They have conversations with us to let us know what is going on in the community.”
And those connections extend beyond the school day. Clayton said when he is out in the community, students often stop to chat with him. He emphasizes that even though his officers are professionals, they still try to make a difference in the lives of their students.
“It's another way to connect besides dividing,” Clayton said.
A change in policy
Since the department was established, officers no longer rely on assistance from the Meridian Police Department or Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department to handle discipline and safety. If a crisis such as an active shooter on campus occurs, outside help would be called.
Some of the department’s guidelines are laid out in a manual recently approved by the school board. The manual lists procedures for arresting students recommended by the Department of Justice.
For example, if a student misbehaves, the matter should be handled by the school, not the police.
Officers are not allowed to arrest students unless an unlawful act has occurred, and a student may not be arrested unless there is authorization from the superintendent or assistant superintendent of student services.
In terms of dealing with mental health issues, the department receives training to deal with certain situations.
‘Trying to do positive things’
Connecting on campus doesn’t just benefit students, but the officers as well, Clayton said.
Sidney Coleman, who is in his fifth year as a resource officer, said his job is different than other police officers because he has a chance to interact with staff and students on a daily basis.
“Mentoring the kids and trying to do positive things,” is how Coleman describes his duties. “I feel like I am going to change some kid’s life.”
The department provides a sense of security for parents, too.
For LaShronda Roberts, whose children have attended schools in the district, the presence of police on campus is a good thing, because the students know the officers.
Roberts said the officers also serve as mother and father figures, filling a void for students lacking positive role models.
Too, Roberts said, it’s nice to see officers at extracurricular events, keeping students safe.
"They are very much a staple in the community," Roberts said.
One thing Roberts would like to see is more collaboration between local law enforcement agencies and high school schools. Such an arrangement would benefit high school students considering careers in law enforcement, she said.
"They play a big part in training upcoming officers that may be ready to take their place," Roberts said.
‘That’s my officer’
Clayton, the chief, says encouraging his officers to build relationships with their students is an ongoing effort.
And, he notes, it means a lot when a student changes their description of police as “the officer at my school” to “that’s my officer.”
“You know that relationship has been established,” Clayton said.