Sawgrass Elementary School always has a Sunrise Police patrol car parked out front. Not because there's a permanent crime scene there. Far from it. The car belongs to a cop whose beat is walking the halls, talking to kids, preventing future crimes.
"I'm like a rock star here," said Officer Ben Hodgers. "I get mobbed when I walk through the cafeteria, it's Officer Ben this, Officer Ben that."
Whatever Officer Ben talks about, the kids soak it up like sponges. From cyber bullying to the dangers of drugs and gangs, Hodgers teaches it in classes tailored for every age group. He's at Sawgrass Elementary every day, a full-time school resource officer, or SRO.
“It’s all about the kids, I see our future, these are the kids that are gonna be doing your job and my job one day and they are the ones that come to us for advice and I help them and I know I’ve already made an impact on some of these kids," Hodgers says.
He's been an SRO for the last four years, and says middle school students come back all the time and tell him they appreciate the lessons they learned from him in elementary school. Officer Ben's job is partly to provide security with his presence, but more importantly, he's planting a positive seed with kids while they're at an impressionable age.
“The brilliance of the program is not really about security or car loops, it’s about the relationships these school resource officers develop with children, and you can see it pay off in dividends in middle school and high school," said Mike Ryan, Mayor of Sunrise.
There aren’t enough school resource officers for every school in Broward County to have one, but some municipalities insist on it, so they pay extra money to make it happen.
The City of Sunrise, for example, spends about $80,000 a year for each SRO in its 11 public schools, with the school district paying the rest, which comes to a little more than $46,000 per officer. Broward has 191 SRO's, and some of them rotate from school to school.
"Sadly, some cities don't have full-time school resource officers in their elementary schools because either they can't afford it or they don't understand the complete value," Mayor Ryan said.
Miami-Dade Public Schools has its own police department, which provides SRO's for almost all middle and high schools. The goal is to have one for every secondary school by next school year. But elementary schools don't have permanent SRO's in Miami-Dade. The officers who work the middle schools come to the elementary schools a few times a week.
The principal at Sawgrass Elementary, Trevor Roberts, says it’s worth the money for a permanent role model on campus.
“He’s telling them to do the right thing, he’s helping them out, he’s non-judgmental, and I think the kids just recognize that and say hey, that’s a superhero, he may not have a letter on his chest but the badge certainly helps," Roberts said.
Officer Ben also wears another hat: informal guidance counselor.
“They know they can come to me and ask me any questions, you know involving school or personal things going on at home," Hodgers said.
It's all about developing relationships and making sure kids grow up with a positive impression of law enforcement officers.
"The great thing is, there are a lot of Officer Ben's out there and they're working in elementary schools every day, really developing positive relationships," Mayor Ryan said.