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"Teddy Bear" police officer adds safety and postivity to Southern Elementary

Chief Shannon Clem sees Officer Mark Branham, with utmost respect, as a teddy bear.
    Mayor Ron Stinson calls Branham “a home run.”
    Southern Elementary Principal Mark Hegyi sees Branham as another element of security in a place where no one should feel unsafe.
    Branham? Branham sees himself as a someone who is made for the job.
    Branham recently returned to the Falmouth Police Department after 17 years with the Alexandria Police where he spent four years as a school resource officer for Campbell County Middle School, Day Treatment, and Campbell Ridge Elementary, respectively. He is not unfamiliar with the area. He worked with the department for 11 months in the early 2000s, but this time, he has more experience under his belt, and a lot of experience is in the SRO position. Almost as soon as he walked into the job, he saw where he was most needed and where he would have the most impact: Southern Elementary.
    He and Clem make their position clear. They are not in competition with the sheriff’s SROs. They have met with Sheriff Eddie Quinn, and they have a good relationship with him and his staff. Clem and Branham make it clear that they want to work collaboratively with the sheriff’s department, to supplement the work they are doing. “They have their hands full,” Branham is quick to tell you. “I told them I have the tools. Let’s do this.”
    Clem, Stinson, Quinn, and Hegyi were all on board. The reasons were many.
    Currently, only two SRO positions are provided by the sheriff’s budget, and David Jones, the SRO assigned to Southern, is shared by the high school. The high school’s needs are usually more pressing, so, according to Stinson, he spends much more time there than he does at Southern.
    When the Falmouth Police reached out to Southern to offer its support, Hegyi met with the entire Falmouth Police Department, and the department threw out suggestions.
    Clem also sees a logistic reality. “Southern is the only school within city limits,” he recognizes, “and if something happens there, 95% of the time our force will be the first on the scene just because of where we are. We have to enhance the coverage of our schools with the world being as it is today. The parents, the teachers, and the children need to know they are safe.”
    And what better way to add to that confidence than having a police cruiser parked visibly at the school, the stakeholders question. Branham sees it this way. “If they see my cruiser, they know there is one person in the school with a gun.”
    Clem isn’t resting on that presence alone, either.
    “My department needs to know every nook and cranny of that school,” he insists. “[Emergency Management Director] Mike Moore has updated the emergency plans, and the department knows those plans. And if we have someone in there already…well…let’s say we don’t. If an incident takes place, by the time the school calls dispatch and dispatch calls in, we have lost precious seconds. This way, if, heaven forbid, an incident takes place, we have someone there who can already be handling the situation.”
    This is something that Mayor Stinson, a retired teacher, acknowledges is paramount in school safety. “The police need to know that building, and they need to have a positive presence in it. And now, more officers know building procedures—both the sheriff’s office and the city police. That is better for everyone.”
    But Branham’s presence throughout the day gives them not only a deterrent or an extra set of eyes and ears; he gives them an “in” that only comes through relationship.  
    “He is great with the kids,” Clem brags about Branham. “He talks to them, eats with them, visits every day.”
    Branham admits that relationship-building took some work and time.
    While he was in Alexandria, he worked for some time with Officer Jim Sticklen. When Sticklen passed away, he was put into the position at Campbell County, especially at Campbell County Middle and at Day Treatment. He said CCMS kids resented him at first.
    “I debated being in the schools as an SRO. It got too rough. I didn’t have to go that often, but one day I found myself at Campbell Ridge. I prayed and said if I was going to do this, I needed a sign. I walk    ed into the cafeteria, and before I knew what was happening, 10 or 15 little kids, second- and third-graders, came up and gave me a big group hug. That’s when I knew where I should be.”
    Gradually, the situation got better in the middle school and Day Treatment. “It got to the point that if the kids got in trouble, they would come to me before they would go to the principals or the counselors.”
    As a result, he won the Kentucky SRO Association’s Rookie of the Year. Later, the needs of the department pulled him from the schools and put him on third shift, but his first love was working in the schools.
    “Four or five years later, here I am, back in Falmouth,” he chuckles.
    That relationship and that constant presence develops trust. When they trust him, they know he is there to keep them safe. Sometimes, he has to fight back against what society says.
    “One thing I hate is when a parent or someone sees me and says to a kid, ‘There’s a cop. He’s gonna take you to jail if you keep acting like that.’ I HATE that,” he emphatically declares.
    He wants kids to learn to trust cops at an early age, and words like that destroy a lot of trust. That lack of trust is on-going for many. He hopes that his presence in the elementary schools counters that threatening stereotype for the long term, and he knows he can’t do that alone.
    “If I can help build a good relationship with these kids now,” he believes, “then they can go into middle school having a good relationship with the SRO there, and then again into high school if the middle school SRO works on relationships at that level.”
    So as he works to make his presence pleasant and fun, he plans to work to help the kids learn the importance of responsibility and of relationships amongst themselves, as well; in other words, he doesn’t see his work as just looking out for bad guys. When Hegyi said that attendance drops off for a bit after Christmas break, they decided to hold an anti-bullying poster contest for kids Grades 3 through 5 to help encourage them to get back into school. They will be displayed and judged at the school. Trinity Baptist Church and the mayor and council are on tap to help with judging and the rewards, not only for the winners, but for every child who participates.
    “I’m super-stoked about this,” Branham says, and he isn’t just talking about the contest. He is talking about the day-to-day interaction with the children. “I want to give a positive experience to kids who may have had a negative experience with the police in the past.”
    Clem is just as enthusiastic about the new relationship he and his department has with the school and his new “ambassador” in that relationship, but his excitement has a much more somber ring to it given the reality of the time. “These are our children, and we have to protect them.”