The kindergarten students at Virgil Mills Elementary School leaned forward in their chairs on Thursday, raising their arms as high as they could while obediently remaining in their seats.
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jim Anderson was the guest of honor for the day, and the students had plenty of questions for him. For 45 minutes Anderson chatted with the young students, answering their questions and offering safety tips.
Anderson’s visit was part of an event bringing police officers from surrounding localities into Virgil Mills classrooms. On Thursday morning 13 officers from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, St. Petersburg Police Department and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement visited the school and spoke to students.
Mills teachers Jen Hancock and Kate Cucci coordinated the event in hopes of countering what they say is an increasingly negative perception of police officers.
We need to show they aren’t the bad guy.
Jen Hancock, Mills teacher
“With all the negative media, it’s important we reinforce positive interactions,” Hancock said. “We need to show they aren’t the bad guy.”
Hancock, a fourth-grade teacher married to a St. Petersburg Police canine officer, said she has noticed a shift in how even young children feel about the police in recent years.
“You can tell there is a lack of respect for officers,” she said.
In the kindergarten classroom, Anderson fielded questions from the curious students, several of whom told him about times they had seen a police officer or interacted with one.
One boy wanted to know if police dogs were poisonous. Anderson explained that no, but a dog could give you a “boo-boo” that could get infected. A girl asked how the police stop bad guys. Anderson explained how police use pepper spray and tasers to stop bad guys without injuring them. Another child wanted to know what kind of gun he carried. Anderson told them it was a Smith & Wesson, but he rarely used it.
“I have been a cop 20 years, and I haven’t had to shoot anybody,” Anderson said. “We try not to hurt anybody. We just want to stop the bad guys.”
Aubrie Farrell, a detective with the St/ Petersburg Police Department, was one of the 10 officers from St. Petersburg who made the trip to Palmetto for the morning, including Major Antonio Gilliam. Farrell said taking a morning off to read to children was important because it can reshape the way those students see the police.
“Hopefully it shows people we are human,” Farrell said. “We just want them to know, if you’re lost and you see a police officer, we are your friend.”