Jeff Wainwright was quick on his feet. In the high school lunchroom, just after getting a hug from sophomore Krystal Jackson and a chat with senior Elizabeth Lemos about gardening, a fight broke out between two boys.
Within seconds of fists flying, Wainwright intervened, separated the boys and led them to the office to meet with administrators. Wainwright looked distressed. The boys are good students and athletes, he said, glad he was steps away to break things up.
For certain, Wainwright would rather be passing out tidbits of advice or catching up with students about spring sports and prom. But once in a while springing into action is necessary and — more often than that — settling verbal disputes is his on-duty job.
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“What we do more than anything is put out the fires,” said Wainwright, who is the district’s safety supervisor, about the security team he heads.
Usually students don’t get to the point of a physical altercation, he said. The school’s 600 students, 500 of whom Wainwright estimated he knows by name, often come to him when things are boiling up. Usually, he can help de-escalate by serving as an intermediary while students work things out.
“Here at the high school, we like to build that strong relationship,” he said. “The better the relationship, the less likely we have to get physical.
“Our relationship is what saves us 90 percent of the time.”
‘He’s Chill with Everybody’
But that Monday morning was eventful. Along with having to deal with the sudden scuffle, Wainwright was keeping in close contact with North Godwin Elementary Principal Mary Lang. A fourth-grader brought to school a round of .45-caliber ammunition, which he told school officials he had found in his yard. The child’s mother arrived to help address the situation and confirm his story.
From his desk in the second-story office of the high school, Wainwright, who has worked security in the district since 2006, constantly scans who’s in the buildings on the security monitors, which he can also bring up on his phone. That day, he was also busy doing paperwork, making sure potential volunteers passed background checks.
On top of everything else, he had a tornado drill planned at North Godwin Elementary that afternoon, one of the scheduled fire, tornado and lockdown drills this school year that he and his security team leads.
He also helps track things down, like senior Austen Veloz’s missing baseball glove. The senior stopped in the security office with his friend, senior Angel Torres, to ask for help finding it. Angel said Wainwright is easy to approach.
“He brings a good vibe,” Angel said. “He’s chill with everybody. He does his job right, but he tries to chill at the same time. He creates a bond with us.”
Added Austen: “He keeps things organized. He’s the sheriff around here.”
The Face of Security
The district has extensive security at the high school, middle school, North Godwin and West Godwin elementary schools, the Learning Center, where students attend to complete their GEDs, and South Godwin, which houses preschool programs. Wainwright and six other security officers make up the safety team, making sure all exterior doors are locked at all times, checking them at least twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. About 275 security cameras are constantly monitoring the school buildings and grounds.
Wainwright is a Godwin Heights employee, while his team is employed through DK Security, a Grand Rapids-based firm. Wainwright trained through the National Association of School Resource Officers, of which he is a member. He has also had active shooter, FEMA, First Aid, CPR and AED training, as well as in several other areas.
DK Security officers hone their skills monthly through the company and Wainwright. Two officers have trained with local law enforcement, and all have criminal justice degrees. Wainwright also is a certified firearms instructor and trains the security staff here monthly at various shooting ranges.
Officers observe lunch and hallways during passing times, and check the bathrooms. On camera monitors, they watch for students gathering at times they shouldn’t be, look out for doors cracked open and anything else out of the norm.
“We want to be, first off, a deterrent for outsiders, a peace of mind for parents and community members and a caring staff member for our students,” Wainwright said.
And while he is filling the role of a school resource officer in nearly every regard, he is unarmed. He carries handcuffs and is in close contact with local law enforcement. After the Feb. 14 Parkland, Florida school shooting, the idea of arming staff members in schools made headlines nationwide, with a proposal to allow certain, specially trained teachers to voluntarily carry weapons drawing both criticism and support.
But at this point, Wainwright said he and his team plan to remain unarmed.
“Everybody on our security staff has been trained and has the ability to become armed if our district sees it necessary,” he said. But during previous conversations, Wainwright and administrators decided against it. He said there hasn’t been the level of threatened violence at the schools to justify being armed.
“It was going to send the wrong message, because our kids looked at me so much that it was like, ‘If he’s afraid, what is he afraid of?’”
Reassurance after Parkland
The Parkland school shooting had everyone on edge, Wainwright said, but they had proper security practices in place.
“The only thing we increased was our vigilance and our awareness. Now you have people approaching you to ask questions they should have asked eight or nine years ago. After an incident on a national scale, you get a million questions.”
Another part of Wainwright’s job is calming students and parents, sometimes when the rumor mill kicks into high gear.
“Here at the high school, we like to build that strong relationship. Our relationship is what saves us 90 percent of the time.” — Jeff Wainwright, Godwin Heights safety supervisor
Recently, two students at the Learning Center led to one leaving and saying he was “going to get his stick,” Wainwright recalled.
The district went on lockdown. Police searched the man’s belongings and determined there was no threat, but by the next day the story had morphed and people believed someone had threatened to shoot up the high school.
“This particular student had never been inside the high school,” he said. “A lot of our parents freaked out. … I had to explain that story about 15 times.”
Building Trust is Key
Wainwright said a big piece of keeping schools safe is getting to know students. They stop by his office or talk to him in the hallways, referring to him as “Jeff.”
“I’m more than a shirt and tie,” he said. “For most of our students, I convince them ‘I used to be you’ and they trust that. Once they start to trust that, our relationship can grow from there. But they have to trust you.”
He’s gotten to know many of them over the years. “Watching our students grow from first or second grade all the way through high school is the biggest reward I think I could ever have,” he said.
That kind of compassion isn’t always part of the narrative of communication between youth and those in uniform, but Wainwright said it’s what makes things go smoothly.
He and other staff members recently raised money for senior Jadah Jackson, a teenage mother who couldn’t afford a ticket for prom. He handed her an envelope with $50 inside when she visited his office.
“I wasn’t expecting it, to be honest, but he’s kind of like a second dad to me,” she said. “It feels good. I’m very grateful.”
Jadah said it’s nice to know Wainwright is in the building. “There are a lot of students who know they can say anything to him and it won’t get out, unless they are harming themselves. I feel like I can talk to him about anything. … He gives the best advice.”
Like Family or Friend
Wainwright said he knows what life is like for children living in harsh circumstances. He grew up on the south side of Chicago. “Most of the things I’ve seen here are nothing compared to growing up there.
“I thought it was normal, but it was really rough,” he said, referring to the area he grew up in. “I didn’t realize that wasn’t how life had to be until I got out of there, until I came to Grand Rapids.”
He wanted to make his mother proud and didn’t find success in Chicago. So Wainwright moved to Grand Rapids and started working in security, first at Grand Valley State University and then in Godwin Heights. He was contracted through DK Security until they created the district safety supervisor position for him.
Principal Chad Conklin said Wainwright’s presence diffuses stress.
“Obviously, the most important thing is his appearance around the building,” Conklin said. “It gives everybody a general calm to have someone as high character as Jeff, who’s always looking after things in the building to make sure it’s a safe and secure learning environment. It certainly keeps students and staff at ease.”
English teacher Jessica Molloy said Wainwright provides the assurance she needs concerning safety.
“From a student perspective, the thing Mr. Wainwright does best is makes himself more of a family member rather than a resource officer,” Molloy said. “He’s more of a dad or an uncle or a friend, or just someone they feel comfortable with. That gives him the opportunity to really get to know our kids at a different level and keeps him in the loop with what’s going on in their lives, so he can step in long before things become problems.”
After the Parkland incident, Molloy eased fears by assuring students that Wainwright was more than capable.
“A lot of our students were scared because there are a lot of unknowns, and when there are those unknowns, that’s where our fear comes from.
“The one thing I always told students was that if Mr. Wainwright says the school is safe, then the school is safe.”