LOCAL FOLKS: Officer gives drivers, parents same advice: Slow down

OXFORD – As a school resource officer with Oxford Police Department, Sgt. Johnny Sneed rarely finds himself pitted against hardened criminals, but his life may be more at risk than other officers.
Sneed daily, whose duties include crossing guard, faces that tragedy-waiting-to-happen in the person of inattentive drivers.
“Cell phones have caused me to get hit on the shoulder or arm twice – both times by mirrors. It wasn’t anything serious,” he said. “But if something happens to one of these children, it would devastate me. They’re the reason I took the job.”
Not that it’s all a battle of wits vs. witless. Sneed waves, nods and smiles a lot.
“Mornin’; how you doin’?” he shouts to one parent and his child. Another swings by in a convertible on a gorgeous fall morning and he says approvingly, “Driving with the top down – all right!”
After the bell rings and traffic thins out on Highway 30, however, Sneed’s focus changes from cars and buses to the more than 1,200 students in his two schools – Oxford Elementary, which is pre-K through first grade, and Bramlett Elementary, with its second and third grades.
“The good in this job is really and truly the kids,” he said. “The bad is the kids; what I mean by that is the heartbreak that goes along with them in their home lives. Not all of them, but some. … But when I’m having a bad day, I can see these kids, and they make my day better.”
In Oxford, school resource officers’ most obvious duties are to keep kids safe and to intervene in criminal behavior. Because of his students’ young ages, rarely does Sneed need to do anything more than talk to students.
“I’m not here to discipline them; I’m here to love on them and teach them, and that’s what we do,” he said.
Capt. Philip Zampella is supervisor for Sneed and four other school resource officers. He said at the higher grades, SROs spend more time breaking up fights or investigating small thefts, but they still make time to befriend students.
“This year has been great; there hasn’t been a fight in the high school,” he said. “We also teach classes sometimes in drug avoidance, gang avoidance, and we handle all athletic events. When there’s a football game, we may call in a few patrol officers to help.”
Of course, Sneed and his fellow SROs are subject to being called wherever they’re needed while on duty.
“It’s very rare that we have to leave our duties up here, but if I’m between schools and the patrol needs help on a wreck or something, Captain will send us to help the street guys,” he said. “We’re police first, and school resource officer is where we’re assigned.”
Sneed, 35, and most of his colleagues are popular with their students.
“I feel like I have 700 kids here,” he said at Oxford Elementary, with another 500-plus at Bramlett. “They know what my motorcycle looks like; they know what I drive personally. They come up to us at Chili’s, wherever to talk to us. Our wives don’t like us to come to Walmart with them, because we spend all our time talking to the kids.”
The school staff is fond of Sneed, too. One morning last week as he was leaving his traffic post, he flagged down the owner of a Shipley’s Donuts franchise to say he’d stop by later.
“I wish you hadn’t seen that,” he says sheepishly to a visitor, acknowledging the endless supply of jokes about donut-eating police officers.
“Every now and then I’ll take the office staff some donuts,” Sneed explained. “They take care of me, so I have to do something for them.
“This is for them, now; it’s not for me,” he said, grinning about the stereotype while insisting on his innocence. “I will not eat donuts in this uniform or in that patrol car.”
Sneed turns serious when he considers the challenges his charges face.
“Speaking as a parent first and a school resource officer second, I’d say pay attention to your kids. Listen to them,” he said, noting he and his wife, Michelle, have two sons of their own – one in high school and the other an infant.
“My wife and I are busy from the time we get home,” he said. “I just don’t want anybody not to pay attention to their children because they’re too busy.”
Whether he’s talking to parents about relating to their children or to drivers rushing through his school zone, Sneed has two words of advice: “Slow down.”

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.

Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal