There’s something special going on between 11-year-old John Garrett Pinkston and School Resource Officer Kevin Kirkland. It’s refreshing, interesting, even sweet and heart-warming.
Kirkland is an eight-year veteran of the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office and a hero in the mind and eyes of John Garrett. Kirkland began as the SRO at Eaton Elementary School in Lenoir City in March 2020 – just when Covid-19 hit. No school. But he returned in August 2020 and is in his first full year at this school of 760 students.
Cops don’t have to be on patrol or solving tough crimes or saving lives to be a hero.
John Garrett is a fourth grader; a kid whose big personality matches the big white cowboy hat and boots he wears. He lives on a farm in Hines Valley with his mother and five siblings. He rides horses and loves Myrtle the Mule … and Kevin Kirkland.
We all met in the classroom of an Eaton teacher last week, Kimberly Dailey, a reading and math interventionist who specializes in working with kids struggling with those subjects. After 40 minutes or so John Garrett joined us. No fist bumping. He wanted to shake hands. The shy gene missed this young man.
Well, this story began with a note Dailey wrote to LCSO Chief Deputy Jimmy Davis about John Garrett and Deputy Kirkland. She wrote:
“Just wanted to take a moment to let you know about the impact one of Loudon County’s SRO officers is having on one of our students. My job is to work with students who are falling behind in math and/or reading. We have a student who we know is capable of so much more, but sometimes his motivation is lacking. This student loves the attention he gets from Officer Kirkland and they have developed a bond.
“This student invited Officer Kirkland to his birthday party (Feb. 6, 2021). Who shows up on their day off, on a Saturday with their wife in tow??? Officer Kirkland and his wife, Stephanie, attended this student’s birthday party!!! This student was ecstatic!!!
“We noticed that the student’s grade was slipping, so I asked Officer Kirkland if he might help us motivate him by having lunch with him if he made his goal on an assessment. The student was so motivated that he not only made his goal, but gained 19 points!
“Officer Kirkland has been a blessing to the students and staff at Eaton. He is making such positive influences on the lives of so many students and community stakeholders.”
Dailey says the young man’s grades have remained strong since.
Their relationship began last August, during the first week of school. As John Garrett was getting off the bus, he introduced himself to Kirkland. They shook hands. “The next day he asked me if he could have a selfie made with me and I said sure,” Kirkland says. “From that day forward, we’ve talked every day.”
And what does this 11-year-old have to say about Kirkland? He turned and looked at Kirkland with a big smile. “I just love him. Really. He’s a really nice guy. We need more officers just like him. He helps me set goals and we talk a lot. He’s my buddy.”
And Kirkland on their friendship: “I really like him. Great kid. Such a neat kid. He’s so full of life, too. It makes me feel that I am making a difference here.”
Kirkland, 35, is a Loudon County native, schooled at Loudon Elementary, Loudon Middle and Loudon High schools, where he played football, basketball and ran track. He graduated in 2004 in the Top 25 of his class. After working in a job he did not enjoy, he called Loudon County Sheriff Tim Guider and asked if he had any openings. “We do,” Guider said.
Kirkland applied and was hired in 2013 as a corrections officer and worked in the jail. In 2017, he graduated from the Knox County Regional Training Academy and worked patrol from 2017 until the job at Eaton. He was a little uncertain about the SRO assignment. Today, he loves it and is not pushing to return to patrol.
“I’ve learned a lot more from the kids than they have from me,” he says. “They’re teaching me kindness, watching them interact. Smiles and hugs are routine around here. It’s a tight-knit family here at Eaton between the teachers and the kids – everybody. I feel appreciated and they treat me like a celebrity.”
As for challenges that come with this job, he cited one. “My biggest challenge is seeing these kids here five days a week, seeing them being happy with their friends and teachers. I worry that some of them may not be happy when they get home,” he said. “There’s not much you can do about that. But I do worry about some of them.”
His SRO job he says “is a very different side of law enforcement I had not seen.”
Traffic before and after school and dealing with 1,000 cars plus the school buses can be “exciting.” His job is about security, keeping things safe at Eaton.
“But my interactions with our students is major. Setting a good example, being their friend and letting them know that I am here for them if they need me.”
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. He writes this Monday column – Our Town Heroes – for KnoxTNToday.com. Suggest future stories at email@example.com or call him at 865-659-3562.