College of Criminal Justice News

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bearkats Make the Grade as School District Police

Austin ISD Police Chief Eric Mendez watches over parents and students during a back to school event.
Austin ISD Police Chief Eric Mendez watches over parents and students during a back to school event.

At the Austin Independent School District, a half dozen Bearkats have made their careers in education.

From the Police Chief to Patrol, graduates or current Masters’ students at the College of Criminal Justice are making their mark in the field as school district police for the fourth largest district in Texas. With 86,000 students, 11,000 district employees and 172 facilities, it’s a big job, with lots of diverse opportunities, including patrol, detectives, K9 officers, or school resources officers, to name a few.

Chief Mendez (center) meets with Sgt. David Stovall and a staff member in his office.Chief Mendez (center) meets with Sgt. David Stovall and a staff member in his office.“We don’t consider ourselves a traditional police department,” said Chief Eric Mendez, who will graduate from Sam Houston State University in December with a Masters in Criminal Justice Leadership and Management. “Yes, we provide response, like they do in community policing, but we interact every day with students, parents and visitors to the schools. We educate our students so they are able to be successful. At AISD, we do mentoring, training, mediation, mental health and education. We look for the underlying causes of crime before kids wind up in the criminal justice system.”

The district is always looking for candidates for positions in the police department.

“I am looking for individuals who are people-balanced,” said Chief Mendez. “You have to understand that not everyone is the same and that it takes different approaches to work with different people.”

A K9 officer and his dog meet with a student.
Austin ISD has a K9 Unit with drug and bomb dogs.
Sgt. David Stovall, who also will complete his Master’s degree in December, and Travis Pickford, a SHSU graduate, are detectives in the district. In addition to investigating major crimes and high profile cases that occur in schools, they are charged with exploring allegations of child abuse and in participating in a juvenile intervention program with local police. Sgt. Stovall also oversees the district’s K-9 unit, which includes a Labrador and a Golden Retriever, and Det. Pickford was a K9 handler for “Buddy,” who retired over the summer after 11 years of service. In addition to being trained as drug or bomb dogs, the K-9 unit also makes presentation in the classroom and community.

“It’s a great bridge for meeting with students,” said Stovall. “Here, you have an opportunity to have a positive influence on such an important asset – that’s our kids. What’s more important job is there than to be responsible for the safety of another person’s child?”

Det. Travis Pickford teaches a gang resistance course in schools.
Det. Travis Pickford teaches a gang resistance course in schools.
Det. Pickford is a member of the interagency Joint Juvenile Gang Intervention Unit, where he teaches the Gang Resistance Education and Training program, counsels students who are considering getting in or out of a gang, and gathers intelligence and provides assistance with gang-related problems.

“To be honest, school policing was nowhere on my ‘career radar’ when I decided that I wanted to go into law enforcement,” said Det. Pickford, a 10-year veteran of the force. “I realized very quickly that I had this innate passion to want to work with students. I began to see that my interactions with them had an impact... That sometimes, on that particular day, I was the only person that student interacted with that actually cared about the problems they were going through. I know that it is impossible to ‘save’ every student, but if you can change one student's life for the better, doesn't that make it all worth it? “

Sgt. David Herrera is in charge of patrol in the South Sector.
Sgt. David Herrera is in charge of patrol in the South Sector.
Sgt. David Herrera, who received his Masters of Criminal Justice Leadership and Management at SHSU 10 years ago commuting to Huntsville on weekends, is the South Sector Supervisor managing 17 officers and 43 campuses. Daily calls in his area may include child custody cases, family disturbances, and investigations of complaints against students, teachers, or staff. Sgt. Herrera is also a certified mental health officer and a certified special investigator for sexual assault and family violence victims.

After serving five years as in both a suburban and school district police departments in San Antonio, Herrera joined Austin ISD in 1998 and began working at one the toughest neighborhoods in the district. He worked with faculty and parents to turn the school around.

“The key is ownership in your profession and to your community,” said Sgt. Herrera. “What you give is what you get in return and I had a complete sense of accomplishment when I had to leave that community due to a promotion…I loved the challenge. It encapsulated 10-12 hours a day…I am glad to see that the school was seen as a safe place, not one that is plagued with issues and problems.”

Sgt. Beverly Freshour participates in an open house.
Sgt. Beverly Freshour participates in an open house.
Sgt. Beverly Freshour, who has participated in programs at the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas and just began the Master’s Program at SHSU, is the Patrol Supervisor for the North Sector, overseeing 15 officers. In addition to responding to calls and making daily visits to campuses, she reviews all reports, provides approval for any arrests, and monitors issues that may have a critical impact on the district. She also takes the time to talk to students who are starting down the wrong path.

Sgt. Freshour also started her career at a traditional police department, but as a single mother she needed a smaller department with better hours. She found it at Austin ISD and has stayed 15 years. Sgt. Freshour began as a school resource officer on a middle school campus where she taught a Junior Police Academy class for six years. Working with the district and at the school provided an opportunity to make a positive impact with the students.

School district police spent lots of time with students.
School district police spent lots of time with students.
"The daily involvement with students on a campus is instrumental in changing negative perceptions juveniles have about police officers,” said Sgt. Freshour. “Interaction within a class setting provides an informal environment where students feel safe approaching an officer without feeling intimidated."

Senior Police Officer Jimmy Gary, who is pursuing his Master degree to enhance his career in law enforcement, is in patrol and handles daily issues that arise in the central part of the district. He visits elementary campuses and backs up school resources officers and local police on major incidents. Before joining patrol, he was a school resource officer for Anderson High School, where her served as a mentor to students, taught classes on tobacco awareness, and operated a gang prevention and awareness program on campus.

School resource officers are assigned to individual campuses.
School resource officers are assigned to individual campuses.
“The best thing about the job is the day to day interaction with the students,” said Officer Gary. “You get to build a rapport with them and earn their trust. You get to see some of the kids grow up and you see the impact you made on their lives. You see the change in them by being a positive influence.”


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