Photo Provided. In the photo is Officer David Heptinstall.
By: Mike Ferguson, Guest Columnist
Haines City - It’s not uncommon for cheerleaders, athletes, and members of student government to have school spirit, but Ridge Community High School is finding school spirit from a perhaps unlikely source - its school resource officers.
The largest public high school in Polk County, Ridge Community is served by resource officers David Heptinstall and George Gonzalez. Both are in their first full year at the school. The two are on the campus daily to take part in preventative policing, mentoring, and ensuring the safety of students and staff.
Last month, Heptinstall, a former U.S. Air Force sergeant, and former K9 officer introduced a contest to students to create a picture or a design that best illustrates the integration of law enforcement and the school. The selected artwork will take the place of the current “Drug Identification” poster that appears on the wall. “I’ve been doing this long enough that I know what drugs look like,” Heptinstall said. “We want our students to be proud to be Bolts and to use their talents to show their pride. I would much rather students, staff and I have the pleasure of seeing something that reflects that each day.”
The contest lasted through Sept. 17 and was judged by Heptinstall, art teacher Gregory Wortham, and Principal Stephen Ely. It was judged on how it captured RCHS’s values of Responsible, Capable, Honorable and safe in addition to the Haines City Police Department’s partnership with the school. Winners were awarded prizes.
When the Haines City Police Department spearheaded the local effort to provide relief supplies to victims of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, the Ridge Community school resource officers took it upon themselves to incentivize giving by creating a school-wide competition. The winning grade earned the opportunity to shove whip cream pies in the faces of their favorite teachers and administrators. Both Heptinstall and Gonzalez had to switch from schedules of two days on and two days off to five days per week in taking on school resource officer duties. Heptinstall moved to Ridge after his K9, Fenix, retired while Gonzalez left patrol to serve the students of Ridge.
“You’re kind of the chief of your own little city,” Heptinstall said. “You deal with your constituents and handle their problems while liaising with the staff to help them better engage the students. It’s really similar to when I was working as an advisor in Afghanistan. It’s about relationship building.”
The school resource officers of Ridge Community have also worked recently to emphasize the “Community” portion of the school’s name. In mid-September, Heptinstall and junior varsity football coach Quentin Boatwright took a handful of JV players to help clean up the yard of an elderly resident, who was the victim of illegal dumping on his property.
“I really want to help out the community this way,” said Raphael Cesaire, 15, a freshman on the junior varsity team who took part in the cleanup. “It shows people that they can help out, too. When the little kids are watching, they look up to you. When you have a nice community, it’s good for everyone and the economy.”
Other plans in the works are a car show fundraiser to raise money for new band uniforms. The idea stemmed from complaints of students revving their engines in the school parking lot.
While Ridge Community High School has seen an uptick in school spirit from its school resource officers, those individuals strive to make an impact across the board. Heptinstall and Gonzalez team with Haines City High School’s school resource officers, James Garrison and Corey Wemer, to run the agency’s Explorers program.
Officer Andre Stoudemire, at Daniel Jenkins Academy and Boone Middle School resource officer Daniel Hicks are both planning to implement the SAVE program at their respective schools this academic year. The program aims to teach young people different ways to combat school violence before it begins.
“I was apprehensive, but it really is an interesting job where you can make an impact with doing some preventative policing and you have the opportunity to change the mindset of how the youth look at law enforcement,” Heptinstall said of becoming a school resource officer. “While just as busy as a patrol officer, our goal is to be a resource for the school staff, students, parents, and community, so ultimately that makes you shift your thinking from the often shift work mentality of going call to call to call. Many of the community-oriented policing principles are used at the school.”
About the Author: Mike Ferguson currently serves as the public information officer at the Haines City Police Department. A native of Polk County, Mike previously spent nearly five years as a full-time reporter at The Ledger. Mike contributes to a number of outlets and has work appearing in the Associated Press, Yahoo, FoxSports.com, Athlon Sports and Sports Illustrated online among other publications. Mike earned his bachelor's degree from Florida State University in 2009. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Davenport, Florida with their two children.