Mirror Lake Middle School seventh-graders Haley Lake (left) and Harper King discuss their science project with school resource Officer Wendi Shackelford on Monday. Shackelford visits Mirror Lake often and helps run the DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, program with students there.
Star photo by Melissa DeVaughn
Anchorage police Officer Wendi Shackelford carries the weapons of a cop and the listening skills of a good parent as she patrols Chugiak High.
Shackelford, one of two school resource officers based at Chugiak, grinned last week as she caught sight of 21-year-old Brittany Pickens, a 2008 Chugiak grad who stopped by just to visit before heading out of state.
The two shared a tight hug.
"My mommy!" Pickens said.
Not exactly the relationship most 21-year-olds share with uniformed police officers.
But then, Shackelford isn't a conventional officer, and the school resource officer program isn't a conventional beat.
Really, how many beat cops would give out their personal cell phone number?
"She takes on the superwoman role to protect her community," said Officer Cody Musgrave, Shackelford's partner in the SRO program, which is based at Chugiak High but also takes the officers to area middle and elementary schools. "She carries so much ... I'm not even sure what the word is ... weight. She loves what she does, and the kids know it."
Shackelford is one of 16 officers four of them female based in nine high schools in the Anchorage School District. The SRO program was created to provide a safe working and learning environment for teachers, support staff, administrators and students," as described by an APD mission statement.
School safety is a big part of the program, as are reducing truancy and juvenile crime, police and school officials say. School staff can warn students that if they don't straighten out, the officers will get involved.
But just as important, officials say, the officers are building trust.
Shackelford has managed to develop a relationship with students to the point that "if students are having problems they actually seek her out and ask for advice," said Chugiak principal Rick Volk.
That helps the school, especially when students come to class still trying to sort through a fight that happened off school grounds over the weekend, or a problem at home, Volk said.
"She's a wonderful addition, the whole program is, but her in particular because of how she interacts with kids, " he said.
Many of the students who come seeking help have difficult relationships with their parents or dysfunctional families due to mental health issues, drug abuse or criminal activity. The officers try to educate them about what normal is.
"We become the de facto parent," said Shackelford, herself the mother of an elementary-aged child.
What fascinates her, she says, is that students have to cross the "uniform barrier" to make contact with the officers, who conduct patrols in dark-blue uniform pants and shirt, boots, bullet proof vest, gun belt, and APD-authorized weapons same as any patrol officer.
"I've had students in my office say, 'I hate cops,' " and I'm in full uniform," she said. "And they look at me and they say, 'Oh, not you, Officer Shack.' "
Pickens, now living in Anchorage and studying human services at the University of Alaska Anchorage, credits Shackelford with helping her make it through school.
Her parents divorced, and Pickens often found herself leaning on the officer for support. She felt comfortable talking with her.
The two met on an "Every 15 Minutes" exercise about the dangers of impaired driving when Pickens was a sophomore.
Anchorage police Officer Wendi Shackelford helps Mirror Lake seventh-grader Jared Stouff locate his missing science project on Monday at the school. The project consisted of a paper-cutout "body" the students had been covering with paper organs, bones and muscles as part of an anatomy lesson. When asking Stouff where the body may have disappeared to, Shackelford quipped, "Maybe we should launch an investigation."
Star photo by Melissa DeVaughn
Shackelford would make sure Pickens ate lunch and get on her case if her grades started to slip.
But mostly, Pickens said, Shackelford would listen and treat her with respect.
"She was always very supportive. She would never turn me away," she said. "If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have gotten through here."
Shackelford, sitting later with Pickens and Musgrave, said she never helps out with students unless she talks with their family first. She did that with Pickens.
The officers listen, they say, but they also make arrests, mostly for drugs, weapons, assaults, harassment and Internet threats.
Even as Pickens waited for that hug last week, another female student huddled with Shackelford and Musgrave. A male student was stalking her via text messages. The girl decided not to file for a protective order, but wanted to get some guidance.
Every school has a different dynamic, Shackelford said. Chugiak has a community feel, both officers said fewer arrests than some schools so there's more time for communication with students, which helps lead to problem-solving and prevention.
Shackelford, who describes her age as "approaching 40 quickly," is married to Chugiak's head football coach, Duncan Shackelford. She joined the Anchorage Police Department in 1994 while a senior at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she came to play basketball as an 18-year-old from California.
Shackelford almost didn't put in for the SRO program because she wanted to focus on her specialty working with people on mental-health issues.
"For some reason, I didn't think people would have those kind of problems in schools," she said, a little dryly.
The Shackelfords moved to Eagle River in 2003.
Yes, she does give out her cell number, but that cell does get turned off at night.
She doesn't see her job any differently as a woman, though she makes sure to have a buddy if she thinks a situation could turn physical.
She describes a big part of what she and Musgrave do every day as "life-skills training" and urged other adults to take time to get to know young people.
"They're fascinating to me. I love teenagers," she said. "They're interesting studies of human development."
Shackelford plans to complete her 20-year commitment to APD as a sworn police officer, and return to the department as a police chaplain.
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, May 4, 2011.