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New face in Hernando school: 'I'm here to make sure you guys are safe'

Hernando County Sheriff's deputy Cory Zarcone, 28, talks to Aleigha Dziedzic, 5, right, during breakfast time in the cafeteria of Brooksville Elementary School on March 7. Hernando County leaders approved a spending plan to add 10 school resource officers to area schools.  ALESSANDRA DA PRA   |   Times
Hernando County Sheriff's deputy Cory Zarcone, 28, talks to Aleigha Dziedzic, 5, right, during breakfast time in the cafeteria of Brooksville Elementary School on March 7. Hernando County leaders approved a spending plan to add 10 school resource officers to area schools. ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times
Published Mar. 13, 2018

BROOKSVILLE — Just before 7 a.m. each weekday, Bill Pope pulls his patrol car to the front of Hernando High. Even before his boots hit the asphalt, his mind is moving.

As a school resource officer, he has to be ready for anything: a disgruntled parent in the front office, a fist fight in the courtyard, even an active shooter trudging through the science building.

In his 16 years at the high school, Pope has played out those and many other scenarios in his head to be sure he's prepared for the worst.

"I'm not here to play patty cake or jump rope. I'm here to protect students with my life," said Pope, a 54-year-old Hernando County sheriff's deputy assigned to patrol the school. "If you're not okay with that, the SRO job isn't for you."

Like Hernando High, some schools in the county have long had a school resource officer. Then last month — shortly after the Valentine's Day shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Broward County — Hernando community leaders agreed to add 10 more. Now, all 23 schools in the district are armed with a deputy.

The County Commission and School Board voted unanimously to split the cost, totalling $825,466 through September to cover the deputies' salaries, cars, uniforms and guns. It also covers the cost of a sergeant responsible for training the new officers.

Last week, after signing a sweeping bill on guns and school security, Gov. Rick Scott announced plans to ask the Legislature to help fund school resource officers.

"If there's one thing we can come together around," Superintendent Lori Romano said at the time of the School Board's vote, "we can come together around our children."

• • •

On his fifth morning on the job as the school resource officer at Brooksville Elementary, Cory Zarcone patrolled breakfast in the cafeteria.

Sipping coffee from a silver thermos, the 28-year-old deputy moved through tables of students, occasionally crouching down to take a seat.

At some tables, conversation was simple: favorite colors and subjects in school. At others, talk was more challenging.

"What happens if a criminal comes to our school?" asked fourth-grader Sydney Long, who is 11.

Before Zarcone could answer, third-grader Kaiden Diggett chimed in.

"I know why you're here," the 8-year-old said. "'Cause that kid brought a gun to school and shot all his friends."

Along with curious stares and requests to touch his gun, Zarcone has faced a lot of tough questions since arriving on campus. It seems that's what comes with being a school resource officer at an elementary school — especially in light of the shooting in Parkland.

Rather than try to answer them all, Zarcone — known as "Deputy Z" — uses the inquiries to remind kids why he's there.

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"People do bad things unfortunately," he told a table of kids sipping orange juice. "I'm here to make sure you guys are safe."

• • •

On most days, Pope doesn't deal with crime or violence on the sprawling, 55-acre campus. Rarely does he pull the handcuffs from the back of his belt. The bullet-proof vest beneath his clothes has never been hit.

Often, he serves as a sounding board for a student having a bad day. He loans out pencils and lunch money. Sometimes, the deputy finds himself at his computer looking up technical school programs for a senior without post-graduation plans.

"I'm not his or her biological father, but somehow they are coming to me for help," said Pope, a father of four and grandfather of three. "They want someone that cares about even the smallest thing."

Cordell Warran, a ninth-grader, called Pope a "friend and protector at the same time." Freshman Shawn Bingham said the deputy helps students "separate the good from the bad, and puts them up there in the world" by pushing them toward good grades, a good job — a good life.

Working to build those relationships, along with keeping an eye on social media, gives Pope a pulse on the student body.

"You gotta be plugged in, be proactive rather than reactive," he said. "These kids are my eyes and ears."

Pope said at least 15 students he watched graduate from Hernando High have gone into law enforcement. Soon, he will attend a police academy graduation for another.

"One of the greatest rewards that I have ever encountered in my whole life," he said of his job. "Students gravitate toward you for energy, and when you care for them, they can make it to the next level."

• • •

At breakfast, a man walked up to Zarcone with an arm outstretched for a handshake.

"We're glad to have you on board," said Dean Lodwick, 49, whose daughter is in third grade at the school. "Thank you for your service keeping our kids safe."

Zarcone will spend the remainder of the school year walking hallways, overseeing kickball games and creating a rapport with teachers and students — all in an effort to become a fixture, a "part of the family" at Brooksville Elementary.

Both he and Pope admit that compared to regular policing, patrolling a school can sometimes get monotonous. But they treat the job just the same.

"I always remind myself of things that have happened at other schools," Pope said. "History has made it very clear that no one is exempt."

That's why every morning until he retires, as he pulls up to his parking spot in front of Hernando High, his mind will race. He will be ready.

"My philosophy on someone messing with my school is: How dare you?" he said. "These grounds are off limits."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.