‘It was life changing’: Former SRO says job was most rewarding part of law enforcement career

Published: Sep. 30, 2021 at 7:57 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - A former school resource officer in Jefferson and Bullitt counties believes his decade-long work in schools was the most rewarding of his 50-year career.

William Willhoite spent 20 years in the military, then spent another 20 years as a police officer in Louisville. After that, he accepted a role with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office to serve as a school resource officer (SRO).

“I delved into the unknown and it was — it was life changing,” Willhoite said. “I’ve dealt with so many juveniles that had a story and some of them had stories I could do something about.”

Willhoite’s work as a SRO spanned roughly a decade between Fern Creek High School and Bullitt East High School. He said in those ten years, he became a mentor and companion for several students and helped many of them navigate the pressures of high school.

“The biggest, most important thing you can do when you’re an SRO is gain the kids’ trust,” Willhoitte said. “They want to know that you care enough about them to discipline them, but there are more ways to discipline a kid than being physical with them or taking them to jail.”

For several people, that is the argument against deploying SROs in schools. A study from Ben Fisher, a former criminal justice professor at the University of Louisville, showed how SROs perceived threats in schools changed by the demographic makeup of the school, leading to more arrests of Black, male students.

However, Willhoitte told WAVE 3 News his ability to gain trust with students allowed him to discipline without making arrests. Even more, he believes the trust he fostered with students helped him keep the school safe in a way that went beyond data.

“[The students] come to me to tell me what’s going on,” Willhoitte said. “I had anonymous boxes they could put stuff in, and it worked, thoroughly. I don’t know how many times I went to a person’s house and collected guns and collected whatever, and stop a kid (from committing a crime) in the parking lot.”

Willhoitte believes Jefferson County Public Schools need resource officers, despite the belief from some that they do not make schools safer.

Now retired, Willhoitte said he still looks back on his time in schools fondly because of the bonds he was able to build with the people he protected.

“I feel like if I ever go to heaven, it’s because of my time as an SRO,” Willhoitte said. “I really do. It’s just, I have changed lives. I feel like I have had a big part in changing lives, hopefully for the better. I just wish I could stay with them 24 hours a day.”

The decision to place SROs in JCPS schools would have to come from the district’s school board. A district spokesperson told WAVE 3 News that typically before making decisions that impactful, the board will ask for a recommendation and research from the superintendent.

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