MYRTLE BEACH — It felt like coming home when John Brantly returned to Socastee High School in 2011.
The 1998 graduate, now an officer with the Horry County Police Department, is the school resource officer at his alma mater. His duties include ensuring school safety and criminal enforcement, but as part of the Socastee family, he is also a mediator, teacher, mentor and friend for the 1,500 students in his care every day.
“It’s like being the chief of a small town,” Brantly said. “I think I’ve got one of the best jobs. I get paid to interact with kids who are the future of our society, and it’s great – I absolutely love it.”
The assignment of school resource officers began in the wake of the 1999 Columbine attacks. By 2001, there were resource officers on duty in all Horry and Georgetown county middle and high schools. Their roles and responsibilities have received heightened scrutiny in the aftermath of the deaths of 20 first-graders and six staff members at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December.
As debate among politicians, parents, police and educators swirls across the nation over whether to arm teachers and other school officials to increase protection from such large scale attacks, officers such as Brantly report for duty each day to handle a wide variety of problems in hopes of making a difference in the lives of the students in their care.
No two days are the same, says Brantly.
7:30 a.m. March 7
Brantly joins staff members near the school’s front desk before the morning’s security checks.He looks on as sudents begin to converge at the doors, filter in, walk through metal detectors and bag searches, then on to class before the first bell at 8:20 a.m.
Metal detectors went into daily use at middle and high schools about two years ago, but school resource officers have been assigned to those schools for more than 15 years. Horry County police serve 15 schools in unincorporated areas of the county, and city officers from Myrtle Beach, Conway, Aynor and Loris serve schools in their jurisdiction.
Brantly has no set routine, but begins his first patrol once school is in session. The route takes him through the whole school – all three stories – and on this day the halls are fairly quiet and clear. But there are days when canines are brought in for random locker searches.
In addition to focusing on the high school campus, Brantly also responds if a situation arises next door at Socastee Elementary School, and he and his fellow officers at St. James High School and Forestbrook Middle School cover for each other when needed.
He takes a turn down another hall and stops to visit Jennifer Ainsworth’s moderate special needs class, where students are learning about various jobs. While Brantly often speaks to classes on law-related topics, such as search and seizure, these students want to know the hardest part of being a police officer.
“Being patient,” he replies.
Brantly helps protect the school and keeps people out of trouble, says senior Justin Fletcher. Ainsworth saiys her students adore the officer, adding that Fletcher regularly tells her, “He’s got my back.”
The road back to school
Brantly, who’ll be 33 in May, grew up in Socastee when it was predominantly a military community. He spent four years in the U.S. Navy and as a civilian contractor before moving home and joining Horry County police. After five years on the road and as a field training officer, he says something was still missing, which is why he became a school resource officer.
Basic training for the position included a week at the Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia studying specific crimes and situations that affect school-age children. He also took the recommended advanced week of training, which takes place in the classroom, as well as in event settings.
“Everyone has their specialty, but it takes a certain kind of individual [to be a resource officer],” he says. “You have to find a certain level where you can connect with the kids.”
Brantly walked into his new job with something of an edge, since he already was one of Socastee’s own. A handful of his classmates are now teachers at the school, and a former teacher – the one he credits for straightening him out and keeping him on the right path – has retired but still stops to help out at the school.
“We have this motto, ‘Once a Brave, always a Brave,’ ” he says, “and that is very much true.”
That connection isn’t lost on the students, or the fact he’s willing to help them on his own time. Brantly recently traveled with members of the school’s DECA club, which encourages leaders and entrepreneurs, to its state competition in Charleston, and for the second year, he will be a chaperone for the senior trip to Disney World and Universal Studios in Florida.
“Everyone I know likes him. He has a lot of school spirit, and people really appreciate that,” says senior Erica Roy..
Shannon Burns agrees that students like his support for the school, “and he makes an effort to know each and every one of us.”
Morning break, March 7
Brantly mingles with students In the main commons area then returns to his office to check emails from county police and the school district. As he does so, a separate screen displays images from the school’s 87 campus security cameras.
“We’re very fortunate to have them, because for the size of the school, you can’t be everywhere at once,” he says, “but there’s always a spot you can’t see - I wish I had 87 more. They’re an invaluable tool and are priceless when it comes down to investigations.”
Brantly doesn’t get far with his emails before a female student shows up needing advice. He has an open-door policy and doesn’t want students to worry about being seen at his office. Some kids drop by just to chat, others may come in three or four days in a row to discuss difficulties they’re encountering at school or at home. Sometimes a student just needs a place to vent -- which he said he would rather them do in his office than in a classroom -- or the need may be a trip to In-School Suspension – also known as Chill Out.
“Some students are going to push the envelope, and I tell them that life is full of choices, and you want to make the right choice,” Brantly says. “Everybody jokes around, everybody makes mistakes, but it’s how you bounce back that shows the person you are.”
Within 10 minutes of the meeting, Brantly is called to the guidance office, where he checks in a couple times a day. Students get involved in the normal teenage drama, a lot of “he said, she said,” which can be heightened through social media, and requires some peer mediation.
He has helped them in a range of situations, guidance director Eva Gaddy says, from explaining legal rights to students who want to leave home and finding resources for those who’ve been kicked out, to handling arrests, such as one for ticket violations, with sensitivity.
“He’s calm and listens intently, but in 5 seconds, he can take that police role,” Gaddy said, “but he never yells or treats students in a condescending way.”
Brantly says it feels a little strange to break it to a kid that he’s not the first to come up with a scheme, and it’s difficult when a student he’s developed a rapport with ends up in trouble, especially when they didn’t try to cause harm, but they’ve crossed a line that requires disciplinary measures.
“You never want to get complacent, and there’s a fine line between being approachable and maybe having to arrest that same individual,” Brantly says. “I firmly believe the students know I’m going to do what I have to do, but if I arrest you today, tomorrow is a whole new day – I’ll wipe the slate clean.”
While problems are relatively low for a school the size of Socastee, “we have our moments,” says Principal Paul Browning. He cites a recent incident where two students had to be transported to a hospital after smoking synthetic marijuana on campus. People feel safer knowing Brantly is on watch, Browning says.
“With the issues we have to deal with today, we don’t have time to call and wait on 911,” Browning says. “It’s a totally different feeling having him here. He’s like the neighborhood cop – he’s established relationships with the students and staff, and we all know him, and he doesn’t waver in his standards.”
He has no tolerance for thieves, or someone who lies to him, Brantly says. He notes that fights are down to maybe four a year, which he attributes to Socastee’s zero tolerance policy on fighting, on oroff campus, and to the leadership of Browning, who has been at the school’s helm for the past 15 years.
But when asked about the hardest thing he’s dealt with in his school role, it has nothing to do with actions taken within the school’s walls.
“We had a young man who took his own life, and you always wonder if there was something you could’ve done,” Brantly says. “It’s something that affects the whole school. … When you think about what you look for [as warning signs], some standard behavior, nothing was there, but you still think, ‘would saying something to him have changed anything?’ .”
Late morning, March 7
Brantly is back in his office when German exchange student Maximilian Arnhold stops by to interview him for the school newspaper, The Native Voice, about results from a recent Polar Plunge fundraiser. Brantly also cites other volunteer activities, such as the school’s recent community cleanup day – its first – and the community work of Horry County police resource officers, such as Camp PRIDE, a challenging, three-week day camp they hold for young people each summer.
Before the first of three lunch periods begin, an emergency call comes from a third-floor classroom. Brantly is out the door.
A male student has fainted, but is eventually put into a wheelchair that Brantly pushes to the school nurse’s office.
At the same time, administrators handle an argument in another classroom, and Brantly comes back to oversee the lunch shifts.
From there, he begins his patrol and is met by two females, eager to tell him their side of an incident that had just occurred in the girls’ locker room.
That’s followed by a dust-up between two male students, one of home made a comment about the other having drugs. Brantly observes as school staff members conduct a backpack search that reveals no contraband.
Brantly says the comment could’ve been meant as a joke, but kids speak before they think.
The 3:20 bell
Brantly heads outside, where theater students are building sets for a production, athletes are returning with an assortment of gear, and cars are snaking along the pick-up line.School rarely closes until late because of all the after-school activities, and Brantly won’t be off duty until after three junior varsity games with rival St. James that night.
Brantly attributes his success to the relationship he has with the administration, as well as the patience and understanding of his girlfriend, who supports the time he devotes to the school.
“I can’t tell you how fortunate I am to be here,” he said. “I’m extremely lucky across the board.”
Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.