CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – The bells rang Tuesday morning at 42 schools in Clay County, signaling the official end of summer for nearly 40,000 students and the beginning of some changes for the 2019-20 school year.
Clay County was the final county in Northeast Florida to return to head back to school. Students were greeted by teachers, administrators and a new school police force.
With 47 new Clay County District Schools police officers, this means a police presence will be at every Clay County school. While touring Lake Asbury Junior High School, Superintendent Addison Davis told News4Jax that the presence of new, sharp school district police cruisers parked in front of each school also sends a clear message.
"Safety is our greatest priority," Davis said. "And the car is an immediate deterrent and also it's a symbol that we will have individuals on campus to serve and protect every single day in Clay County District Schools."
The school police officers took over Clay County deputies' role of serving as school resources officers. But the Clay County Sheriff's Office will also have its SROs on school campuses until the end of September when its contract is up.
SROs have a much larger role than just policing school campuses.
"They're going to be visible. They're going to be accessible. They're going to work every day to build the mentality of our children to make the right decisions and really help them be a central part of our organization," Davis said.
Officer Chris Kesting serves as an SRO at Middleburg High School.
"Coming home to my own community where the kids in my neighborhood, where my friends' kids in my community go to school, it’s everything. There’s no one I’d rather work for than these kids," Kesting said. "I took on the SRO role years ago because I knew that I needed to be that guy to go if something happened. I’m that guy."
SROs with the school police force went through training, which included active shooter drills and education on mental health and special needs. Their experience ranges from five to 37 years.
"Looking at the statistics, there’s been so many shootings like back to back to back and knowing that the violence is growing, we also need more growing protection," said Emilee Shrock, who started 12th grade at Middleburg High. "So by having him, it means that our school is paying attention to our well-being."
Chief Kenneth Wagner, who leads the school district police force, said the law enforcement aspect for his officers is only 10% of the job, and the other 90% is creating relationships and bonding with students and becoming their mentors.
"I don’t have to worry about walking to class and imagine someone coming out of nowhere and doing something bad," added Britan Bussey, who is also a 12th grade student Middleburg High. "I can just feel relaxed and calm when I’m going to class."
Students & parents start off school year happy
Though Tuesday was only the first day of school in Clay County, the superintendent said he could already see how all hands are on deck for success this school year.
"I see parents that are coming in by the dozens and are here to connect with teachers, connect with leaders, connect with sports staff to really show it is a cohesive effort to educate our children every day in Clay County," Davis said.
Within minutes of the gates opening bright and early at Argyle Elementary School, families made their way through. Among them was Lydia Morrow and her little ones, who were starting second and sixth grades.
"She's ready for her first year. And no tears this year, just some (excitement). So, we're super excited," Morrow said. "And this guy here, here's the king of the school. He's super excited, as well."
Sharing in that back-to-school joy was a member of the News4Jax family. Photojournalist Matt Kinzig's son, Hayden, started first grade.
When his dad asked what he was most excited about, Hayden said, "That I get to see all my friends."
And with 37,000 students back at school in Clay County, Hayden and his classmates have the chance to make plenty of new friends, too.
The superintendent also said that thanks to maintenance crews working throughout the weekend, things went off without a hitch in terms of student comfort and safety in classrooms. That certainly made parents and students happy.
Parents who have issues with school buses can call the county's hotline at 904-336-0001 or visit OneClay.net.