Dozens of fifth-graders dropped to the lunchroom floor, suddenly immobile. Here and there, a laugh burst forth, prompting others to make hushing sounds.
“You guys have to be quiet,” said Charlottesville School Resource Officer Tammy Shiflett, smiling. “We might try it again if everyone cleans up their tables.”
If the fifth- and sixth-graders at Walker Upper Elementary School keep antics to a minimum, their lunchtime treat might include the viral “Mannequin Challenge” or the more kid-friendly “Andy’s Coming Challenge,” in which the students drop to the floor as if they are toys in the “Toy Story” films.
“They keep me up-to-date and on-trend,” Shiflett said, laughing.
And for Shiflett, connecting with her students is what it’s all about.
A 16-year veteran of the Charlottesville Police Department, Shiflett has been a resource officer for the city schools since 2011. While she keeps an office in Walker, she also is responsible for the city’s six elementary schools, which can be challenging. But Shiflett said she would not trade it for anything.
“I have seven schools, and sometimes you can kind of get pulled in a lot of different directions,” Shiflett said. “The other challenge I have is really here at Walker. We have an open campus, so providing safety can be challenging at times because we are so open and it has three buildings. You have to be aware of that and be alert to those factors.”
“Everything else just falls into place because I love what I do,” she said. “I am here to provide safety and security, as well as being a good role model and building those relationships with our youth.”
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Shiflett’s school day begins in the parking lot at Walker, where she conducts a frenzied symphony of students exiting school buses and parent cars. Greeting each student and giving out hugs and high-fives, Shiflett makes sure every child’s day begins with a smile.
“The best thing about my job is being able to work with young people and being about to watch them learn and grow,” Shiflett said. “I want to be a part of their lives and help them with some of those transitions in life and be a good role model.
“I want to be somebody they can look to and trust.”
Throughout the day, Shiflett goes wherever she is called. Wearing a school radio, in addition to her police radio, she is reachable at Walker with the touch of a button. Just after the first classes of the day begin, Shiflett is answering emails and getting up to date on local news when she gets a call from a teacher about an unruly student.
“Here we go,” Shiflett said.
After dropping the student off at the counselor’s office and reminding him to be on his best behavior, Shiflett makes a round of the school’s halls — encouraging one young girl to take a quiz and giving another a hug — to make sure everything is quiet. Often, she’ll head to the special-needs classroom to visit and read to the students.
Having a police officer on campus means a little extra security for the students and staff, but also an opportunity for students and police to get to know one another, Shiflett said. Being around the children and letting her silly side show from time to time allows Shiflett to create positive and lasting relationships with her students.
“At times, many of these kids see us as being authoritative and either taking away one of their parents or both,” said Shiflett. “So, it’s about building relationships with kids and letting them know we’re there for them, and that we want to help them, and seeing the good in us.”
Throughout the day, both teachers and administrators check in on Shiflett and all of them have a smile for her. Head Principal Linda Humphries said Shiflett has an easy rapport with students and always makes time to help them.
“I know Officer Shiflett does a fantastic job of that, just with her nature, and she cares deeply about the students — and the students know that,” Humphries said. “I just think, especially where we are right now with our society, the more that we can build relationships and mend fences before they’re even broken, the better it is for everybody.”
“I have a wonderful team I work with and could not do it without them,” Shiflett added. “It’s all about teamwork and I can’t say enough about my whole administration here at Walker and at my other schools.”
When the children are having a bad day or just need that afternoon sugar kick, they know where to go. At any given time, Shiflett has pocketfuls of Life Savers and she’s not stingy about giving them out. When a little girl got caught up in the middle of an adult argument and Shiflett had to take her to Social Services, the next day the officer brought a bag of Life Savers to the girl’s classroom to make things a little sweeter.
“She came over and wrapped her arms around me, and I kind of just melted,” said Shiflett. “She looked at me and said, ‘Officer Shiflett, I made it home safely. Thank you.’
“This is why I keep doing this; this is why I keep being a school resource officer because I love the feeling I get when I bring smiles to these kids’ faces.”
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At Walker, because the school is an open campus with three separate buildings, it can be a little challenging to secure the school. To make things easier for Shiflett and the administration, cameras were recently placed in key points at the school and visitors must check in at the office. But nothing beats walking around the campus, Shiflett said.
“It’s very nice and helpful to see who is on and off the campus at certain times,” Shiflett said. “I don’t sit here and monitor the cameras 24/7 — I’d much rather be out and about and moving through my campus.”
Shiflett also works with the teachers and staff to come up with plans in the event of emergencies, such as a fire, an earthquake or an active threat on campus. Practicing drills and making plans are important, Shiflett said, but she also makes sure her teachers know that plans don’t always go off without a hitch during a real emergency.
“I work well with my teachers,” Shiflett said. “I think they do a tremendous job. I honestly didn’t know how much energy and time that they put in to developing their lesson plans to be able to teach these kids.”
“I think we all work together as a team to help these young people grow and become part of their communities,” she said. “My teachers rock.”
When she’s not monitoring the halls or talking to students, Shiflett is in the classroom, usually at the invitation of a teacher. Whether it’s a safety topic — like keeping their hands to themselves — or larceny issues and history of the law, Shiflett said she is always excited to get into the classroom.
“I was kind of torn at one point to be a teacher or a police officer, and now I feel like I’m on ‘cloud 10’ because I have the best of both worlds,” said Shiflett. “I’m able to teach a little bit by doing what I love as a police officer.”
And when she’s not teaching or policing, Shiflett said she hosts an afterschool coloring club, where she encourages students to ask questions and decompress from school. Shiflett also volunteers her time to coach an undefeated championship girls basketball team with the nonprofit Virginia Basketball Academy.
“I think what it all boils down to is I like helping people,” Shiflett said. “That’s why a lot of us get into this profession; we have some desire to help the people in our community and help make things safe, and be a part of our community.”
Back in the lunchroom, the fifth-graders quickly cleaned their plates and tidied their tables before sneaking glances at Shiflett. Suddenly, Shiflett grabbed the lunchroom microphone.
“Andy’s coming,” Shiflett said, smiling, as the fifth-graders collapsed and dissolved into giggles.