Law enforcement veteran ready to protect Clay County students
Chief Kenneth Wagner leading new school district police force
CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – On Thursday, the inaugural class of officers for Clay County Schools Police will be sworn in at the district's August school board meeting.
News4Jax wanted to find out more about the man who was hand-picked by the Clay County Schools Superintendent and approved by the School Board to lead officers in charge of keeping schools safe.
At 6-foot-5, Chief Kenneth Wagner has a commanding presence, and he's eager to help get his team of 46 officers pumped up as they prepare to protect students and staff.
Wagner has a year-to-year contract, which the school board approves. He says he hit the ground running, right after receiving the call saying he would become the department's first Chief of Police.
"I hope nobody saw me in the parking lot. I was pretty happy," he explained with excitement.
"I immediately called Amy and told Amy, 'Hey guess what? It's going to happen!'"
Wagner and his wife Amy will mark their first wedding anniversary just weeks after the start of the new school year Aug. 13. They're already celebrating what they call the opportunity of a lifetime.
"I am extremely proud," Amy said, flashing a huge smile at her husband. "He's the guy for the job and he's done it."
Chief Wagner's love for law enforcement was sparked as an 18-year-old security officer, working in the Port of Los Angeles, California.
"I went on my first ride along with them and oh my goodness, I was hooked!" he recalled. "It's not like TV. I mean, it's really dealing with folks and dealing with their lives, being that helping hand and I was hooked; there was no turning back."
This will be Chief Wagner's 21st year in law enforcement.
"It all started right here in Clay County in 1998," he explained. "I moved from Los Angeles and went to the police academy in Gainesville."
He says his mom was living in Clay County and that's what brought him here, and in September 1998, he started with the Clay County Sheriff's Office. He went on to work in the State Attorney's Office and then the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office for a short time, but he knew he wanted to go back to Clay County.
"All my roots and everything that felt like home was here in Clay County, so I came back," he said.
After returning to the Clay County Sheriff's Office, Wagner says he worked his way up and then went into the Juvenile Crimes Unit, which changed things for him.
"Being involved with the community in a completely different, completely different atmosphere in that it wasn't always crime related," he explained. "It was mentorship. It was dealing with children, dealing with crisis, dealing with all these little things."
While Wagner did move to the training unit where he became an instructor to new recruits, he says luckily, he made it back to juvenile crimes.
"That solidified where I wanted to be and I never looked back. I never wanted to leave that," he said.
And then, when he learned Clay County School District was forming its own police department, another dream of his came true.
"From the very first day that I became a police officer, I always wanted to be a chief of police. I just didn't realize it was going to be in my own backyard," he said.
Most of his career has been with the Clay County Sheriff's Office. This means his new job won't uproot his family from their home in Middleburg.
Amy is a nurse educator for several intensive care units at Orange Park Medical Center, where she's worked the past 11-plus years. Before her career as a nurse, she was a pre-school teacher.
OPMC is also where their son Kenney, Jr. works as a patient transporter and their daughter Lauren is a pharmacy student intern.
With their two youngest children graduating from Clay County Public Schools, Chief Wagner says he understands why he received applications for school resource officers so quickly.
"Every one of them told me when they sat down they either internet searched the Clay County District Schools, they looked at the Department of Education to see where we are, looked at our graduation rates and said, 'Man, I have a family still. I still have children in school. I can work and serve in this community, as well as put my kids in an A-rated school,'" he said.
Wagner's been working on his new police force since his appointment in February and started hiring in mid-May. While a bulk of the men and women hired come from Northeast Florida, he also has officers that come from Alabama and Georgia -- with law enforcement experience ranging from five to 37 years.
June 6 was the officers' first day on the job. It started with training and getting fitted for their new uniforms. By mid-July, the department's new black and white squad cars arrived.
Chief Wagner says he's confident his inaugural class of officers will be ready for the first day of school on Aug. 13.
"We are going to be ready!" Wagner said.
This includes active shooter training taught by the FBI, instruction on ethics, mental health training for juveniles and adults, and education on how to interact with special needs students.
To make it all happen, Chief Wagner says he spent long hours in meetings and on the phone.
"I know that there were some times that it was stressful, especially here at home," he said. "Because I wasn't always in the office talking to vendors or setting things up. I was sitting here at the house talking with folks."
Amy admits watching it all happen was, at times, intense.
"Developing a police department from ground up, it made me a little nervous too," she said, thinking back to the beginning. "But I knew he could do it, and he had my support the entire time."
"The tenacity, the knowledge, the background that he has and the love he has for children," Amy said. "I knew it was going to happen, it was just a matter of time."
Amy says part of what won her over when the couple first met were the 13 years her husband spent volunteering with the Special Olympics and its Law Enforcement Torch Run.
Chief Wagner jumps at a chance to talk about the Bocce team he coaches, his time as area director for the Torch Run, and about whom he calls amazing athletes.
"When they see us, they know that we are the guardians of the flame," he said, beaming with pride. "You take that and you hold it dear to your heart. It's really hard to explain -- I just love it."
Chief Wagner says the combination of his time volunteering and working in different aspects of law enforcement brings the right perspective and approach to leading Clay County Schools Police.
"(We're) not just a police officer," he said shaking his head. "(We're) a resource for our students and our faculty and community members because (the officers are) going to be empowered with a lot of information, a lot of direction."
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