Back when Steven Baxter was first hired as a school resource officer in 1997, Lincoln County Schools was one of the few counties left that didn’t have SROs. Baxter was one of two other individuals who were hired for these positions and he was the first to come on board.
“I was working with the Charlotte Police Department when they were talking about starting the program,” Baxter said. “Bill Beam, who was the chief deputy at the time, called and talked to me about it. My father worked here and I basically knew everybody here. They knew I had some interest in leaving because my son had just been born and I was missing a whole lot working down there.”
Baxter worked as an SRO at West Lincoln High School for 22 years. He now works undercover.
Fast forward to the 2018-2019 school year when SROs were added, for the first time, to all four Lincoln County Schools middle schools and to both campuses of Lincoln Charter School.
“I felt like eventually we’d get SROs for middle schools, because we were one of the few counties without SROs in middle schools,” Baxter said.
Of course, things changed dramatically over the 22 years that Baxter worked as an SRO. One of the biggest changes was social media. When he first started, there wasn’t Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat.
“That’s a big part of the social life of teenagers now,” he said. “My daughter’s 14, she just started high school this year and it’s constantly that phone. It affects the whole atmosphere of the school. Kids today don’t get the opportunity, at the end of the day, to get a break from school and the peer pressure. Because of social media, it goes home with them and that isn’t just for high school kids.”
Smoking cigarettes was a problem when Baxter worked as an SRO but that’s evolved into vaping, which is much harder to police at both the high and middle schools.
It was an adjustment for Baxter to go from working as a police officer in Charlotte to the school he graduated from.
“I think I was expecting it to be the same school, but it was different,” he said. “The kids adjusted well to having an officer there. When I first came to work here, my intention was to work in the schools for a couple of years and then go back to patrol, but I found my niche. I liked it. I still enjoy the kids and the young people. I think it was time to let someone else come in.”
Baxter frequently gets kidded that they were going to name a wing or gym at West Lincoln High School after him.
With the additional SROs, Sheriff Bill Beam requested a new position from the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners to supervise them. The salaries of SROs are paid by the schools for 10 months but this supervisor position is funded under the sheriff’s office budget. Prior to that, the SROs were supervised by the district sergeant so there wasn’t a lot of cohesion or communication.
Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office First Sgt. Richard Calhoun applied for and got the job.
“The sheriff had been speaking with some other sheriffs on how they were managing the SROs and a lot of them had a management position in place,” Calhoun said. “We have nine SROs now. I was promoted into this position in July so I’m in the early stages of learning how to develop, maintain and monitor them.”
Calhoun’s management experience comes from his years working in real estate acquisition and investments. Prior to starting with the sheriff’s office in 2009, Calhoun developed upscale golf courses until the market crashed. He had a lot of friends in law enforcement, which was what swayed him in that direction and fell in love with it. He’s never worked as an SRO, having most recently worked as a detective.
On a regular basis, Calhoun in communication with the SROs to assesses school vulnerability, seeing what’s being done correctly or incorrectly. If a SRO is out for the day, Calhoun fills in and he’s constantly in the schools checking with the officers to see if they need anything and how he can help them.
“There’s always something going on, whether it be student conflict or an issue with the administration,” he said. “It’s very busy and there’s rarely a boring moment. I don’t think there can ever be a building that’s a fortress. You’re always going to have, to an extent, security concerns. Part of my job is to work between the sheriff’s office and school administration to close those gaps. Priority one is to keep our students safe.”
Being a SRO is a very different job than what most deputy sheriffs or police officers do. It takes a special person to fill that job.
“The person has to be self-motivated,” Calhoun said. “If you’re in a school all day and kids are in class, it has to be someone who’s not going to sit in their office all day. It has to be someone who can talk to people and relate to these kids and form relationships. That’s the key to a good SRO.”
Even though safety is important, building the relationships are probably just as important, Calhoun added, even with the middle schools. Showing them that police are good people. Some children may come from backgrounds where they don’t know that.
“A lot of our SROs reach out and go the extra mile doing things for the kids who are underprivileged,” he said. “I had one SRO that was mentoring a kid and he needed shoes to play sports which the SRO went out and bought for him. He wanted him to have them.”
When Beam opened up this position, 16 different people applied for it, all of whom were interviewed. It was the consensus of a board of supervisors who did the interviews that Calhoun would be the best person for the job. While his primary job is overseeing the SROs in the middle and high schools, sometimes issues come up in elementary schools which Calhoun handles, according to Beam. If there’s traffic issues, he works with those as well to try to settle those.
“These kids are the most prized possession of every resident in Lincoln County,” Calhoun said. “It’s a large task and something we take extremely seriously.”