LAND O'LAKES — The sight of 15 uniformed law enforcement officers gathered outside Lake Myrtle Elementary School on Thursday stirred some consternation among parents who were bringing their kids to school.
The alarm faded to smiles when the deputies explained they had come to read to students.
"This is just really exciting for us," said Cpl. Tami Roach, Lake Myrtle's school resource officer. "Anything we can do to connect with young people and show them the positive side of law enforcement."
The officers fanned out across the campus, visiting all of the school's kindergarten, first- and second-grade classes.
Lt. Brian Prescott, who supervises the school district's resource officers, headed to Joyce Basulto's first-grade room, the picture book Sally Goes to the Beach in hand. The children quickly settled in around him to listen to the story about a dog's vacation.
Prescott appeared to know the tricks of the trade, holding the book up so the kids could see the pictures and asking several questions aimed at keeping their attention.
While he read, Basulto observed that his arrival couldn't have been more timely. Her class is studying why people work, so having a police officer visit ties directly with a class project.
"Also, just having people from the community come in helps," she added. "Look. He's sitting there. He's reading. He's a human being. He's approachable."
After ending the story, Prescott talked to the students about how important it is for them to read. Just to become an officer, he said, he needed to read massive manuals and textbooks, and every day he reads reports, laws and more.
"When you get out of school the reading doesn't stop," Prescott said. "It just starts."
He turned the conversation to one about being good and dealing with kids who are bad.
"What are bad things that you definitely should not do?" he asked the kids.
"Kill somebody," one shouted.
Prescott asked the students which weapon is the most valuable to him.
They thought before responding. They guessed pepper spray, gun, handcuffs and the "whacker." All wrong, Prescott informed them.
"It's my mouth," he said, explaining the many times he's had to talk down a confrontation, compared with the single time he ever used pepper spray on someone. Basulto brought it to the children's level: "It's using your words, boys and girls."
After showing the class all his weapons except the gun, which remained safely in his holster, Prescott opened the floor for questions. The children had plenty.
Does the Sheriff's Office provide all an officer's equipment, one girl asked. "Everything but my shoes," Prescott replied.
Has Prescott ever run a red light while chasing someone? "Sometimes. It's kind of weird the first time you do it," he said. "You think you're going to get pulled over."
What if you're at a school and a bad guy around the corner is robbing a bank? "We'll try to catch them," Prescott said, pausing to answer his ringing cell phone. After saying he'd call back, he returned to the Q&A.
If he's in a school and a bad guy is near, would he stay or go, a girl wanted to know. It depends on the situation, he answered, turning again to answer his phone.
After a few more questions, he ended by telling the kids they made his day. They said they had fun, too.
"I kind of like them," 6-year-old Colin Wilkins said of officers. "It's because I think they have cool weapons."
"Police officers arrest other people and they help us," added Mia Ferrell, 7. "And it was a cool story."
Austin Rehus, also 7, said he learned that police not only arrest people, but they also help keep schools safe "and they call other police officers if they found out someone robbed a bank."
After listening to the kids' assessment of the session, Prescott left the classroom to return the calls he had postponed. A few minutes later he closed the phone and shook his head.
"Can you believe it?" he said. "While we were in there ... the bank around the corner got robbed."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.