An officer and a friend

Dan Hansen puts in long, tough days enforcing order at a school for emotionally disturbed students. The reward? The relationships he builds.

By Donna Winchester
Published April 20, 2007

PINELLAS PARK -- The police radio on his shoulder squawks all morning long at Richard L. Sanders School. A young child has left the classroom and is headed for the street.

A middle school student is pounding on a window in the media center.

Two high school students are fighting in the cafeteria.

Just before noon comes a message that makes his heart turn over. Tiffany Campbell is in trouble again.

Dan Hansen, the school's resource officer, reaches the courtyard in time to see Tiffany slamming her palm on an aluminum post holding up the canopy outside the middle school wing.

Bang-bang! Bang-BANG! BANG-BANG!

Tiffany stands alone on the empty lawn. Her shirt and mouth are stained with the spaghetti she ate for lunch. Eyes shut tight, she lets out a mournful wail.

Hansen approaches slowly, reaches out and catches her arm in mid strike. He rests his hands on her shoulders, leans in close.

"Why'd you leave the classroom, Tiffany?"

No response.

"Why don't we take a walk to see if we can get things worked out instead of letting things get blown out of proportion?"

Tiffany's head drops forward, her shoulders relax. She allows Hansen to guide her back inside the building and down the hall to Room 305.

He begins to think this might still be a good day for her. Until she stomps on the foot of the boy holding the door.

*   *   *

Hansen spent 31 years with the Pinellas Park Police Department, the first 13 answering shoplifting, domestic violence and traffic crash calls across a city of 50,000. After that, he investigated aggravated assaults, bank robberies, rapes and homicides.

Now, his beat is Sanders and its 185 students. The school is one of three Pinellas County public schools for students ages 5 to 22 who have been classified as severely emotionally disturbed.

Children at other schools have plenty of behavior problems, but at Sanders, the problems are more intense, last longer and are more frequent. On a scale of 1 to 10, an incident that would rate a 10 at any other school would be a 2 or 3 at Sanders.

The kids act out for all kinds of reasons and for no reason at all. Some have little or no parental supervision. Few have the words to explain what they're feeling. Because of their behavior problems, they often fall behind in class and get more frustrated.

Yet the school still aims to teach math, English, science and history to move them from kindergarten through graduation. It takes an army of teachers, social workers, school psychologists and several behavior specialists, whose chief mission is to keep order.

The hardest job and the toughest cases are Hansen's. After the others coax, cajole and threaten, they call him.

He carries two sets of handcuffs on his belt along with a metal nightstick and a canister of pepper spray. He has never used the nightstick or the pepper spray, but he arrives at work each day prepared for anything.

"When I first came here, I was the mother f----- cracker b----," Hansen said. "In 30-plus years with the city, nobody ever talked to me like that."

*   *   *

Tiffany knows how to curse, but it's not her words that Hansen worries about. Tiffany bites. She kicks. She head butts. She's remarkably strong for a 13-year-old.

Minutes after she's back in her classroom, she starts stomping on the other kids' feet. The teacher calls a behavior specialist and evacuates the room, standard procedure to de-escalate a child who's out of control and to protect the other students.

Hansen hears the call and heads back. Tiffany, alone now in the center of the room, screams at him not to come near her.

In one quick movement, he's beside her. Gently but firmly, he brings her arm, elbow bent, behind her back. The behavior specialist does the same at her other side. Together, they steer her out of the classroom and half walk, half drag her down the hallway.

She yells, "No, No, NO!" all the way to the time-out room.

*   *   *

Hansen's days start early. He's in his office each morning by 6:30, switching on four large monitors that rotate scenes from 64 surveillance cameras. He makes a pot of coffee, drinks a quick cup, and heads for the bus circle.

He watches to make sure no kids are carrying backpacks, potential hiding places for pocket knives or drugs. He scans each child's face. A student who appears disgruntled at 7 a.m. likely will become more disgruntled as the day wears on.

On a recent Friday, the first call comes shortly after morning announcements. The radio reports a high school student is heading for the parking lot. By the time Hansen gets there, the student has scaled the fence.

Hansen pursues him in his police car, a Ford Crown Victoria with "Pinellas County Schools Police" on the side. The boy waits until Hansen comes into view, then climbs back over the fence onto school property.

Hansen pulls back into the parking lot. He talks the student into coming inside the school office but suspects there's little chance he'll settle down enough to return to class.

He calls another Pinellas school police officer to take the student home, often the best alternative for disruptive children whose behavior can escalate. Hansen will send three more students home before the day is over.

Minutes later, he's asked to report to the media center. He arrives to see a boy hoisting a chair to heave at another student.

Hansen orders the boy to put the chair down. He pins the boy's arms behind his back and walks him away from the other students and out of the building. The child will spend 10 minutes isolated in the time-out room.

An hour later, Hansen sees the boy in the cafeteria. He goes up to him, puts his arm around him and asks, "You got things under control?"

Then, "How's Mom doing?"

In his usual spot, Hansen observes the kids as they come through the food line. A few say hi and slap him high fives. One boy, who until recently wouldn't look at him, brings his tray over and sits down next to him.

Their conversation is interrupted by another call. A student has turned over a desk in the middle school wing. The student is one Hansen has been keeping his eyes on.

"When some of these kids have a problem, instead of saying, 'I can't do this, I need help,' they throw a temper tantrum," he says. "That's their way of saving face in front of their peers."

Just before dismissal, he hears a rumor that a fight will break out at the bus circle. He's not surprised. The end of the day can be the roughest time, because that's when kids have the largest audience.

Some kids wait until the end of the day on Friday to get in trouble.

"I always thought that kids wanted to go home for the weekend," Hansen says. "You'd be surprised how many kids want to be arrested on Friday so they don't have to."

*   *   *

Hansen learned many of the techniques he uses at Sanders when he worked as a Pinellas Park police officer. Stay calm under pressure. Move quickly, but never run.

Other things, like keeping his voice steady and low when talking to a child, he learned from raising his own three kids. They taught him that getting upset accomplishes nothing, and that threatening a child will get him nowhere.

He prefers gentler methods. He tries to give kids what he calls "avenues to benefit themselves," opportunities to turn themselves around before things get worse.

"Right now, you've disrupted the classroom," he'll say to a child who has unleashed a string of profanities. "Don't dig a hole so deep you can't get out." To a kid he's had to take down to the ground he'll ask, "Why'd you make me do this to you? What can we do in the future so it doesn't happen again?"

He gives lunch money to kids who have none. He once offered a pair of his own son's jeans to a boy whose pants didn't fit properly. He bought a box of candy the night before Valentine's Day for a student who didn't have the money to buy his girlfriend a gift.

He tries hard not to arrest kids. But when they break the law, he doesn't have much choice. Striking a teacher, for example, is "the end of the road."

So far this year, he has made five arrests for violation of probation, three for assault and battery, three for disorderly conduct, one for drug possession and one for lewd and lascivious conduct.

He knows that some children can't be helped no matter what he does.

"I treat them like human beings anyway," he says.

*   *   *

Kids like Tiffany tear at Hansen's heart. He doesn't know the details, just that she lives with her grandmother. He has seen her on good days and on days when she "falls off the edge of the cliff."

This is an off-the-edge-of-the-cliff day. Hansen and the behavior specialist are taking Tiffany to the time-out room, a 6- by 7-foot closet with a steel-reinforced door.

Tiffany is frantic by the time they get her inside.

She pounds on the door with her fists. She kicks it. She yells: "I'm gonna kill you! "I'm gonna f------ kill you!"

Just the week before, Hansen bought Tiffany an ice cream. It's something he does as an incentive to get kids to behave for a week, a day, a few hours.

Today, all he'll probably be able to do for her is give her a ride home in his police car. He doubts she'll calm down in time to ride the bus.

*   *   *

Hansen never planned to become a school cop. But a month into his retirement, he needed something to do. Chief Doreen Thomas, his supervisor on the Pinellas Park force, recommended him to the school district's police chief.

Since coming to Sanders, he has learned school policing is very different from city policing.

"Some days you fight with them and some days you arrest them," he says. "But you have to come back and deal with the same kids the next day. You have to build a relationship and a rapport with them."

Over time, the relationship has become a two-way street. Kids don't curse him as much. Sometimes, a child will tell Hansen he wishes he were his dad.

The 10- to 12-hour days don't always end happily. He recently had to Baker Act a 6-year-old who ran into the street and wrapped his shoelaces around his neck.

There are a few victories.

A girl Hansen got off on the wrong foot with has since moved from Sanders to Dixie Hollins High School. She still calls him once a week to check in. A student with whom he says he had a love-hate relationship will transfer to St. Petersburg High School next year.

And a boy who will be a senior at Sanders next year has received permission to play football for St. Petersburg High. Hansen has promised to be in the stands cheering for him at his first game.

"Another police officer would say I was crazy," Hansen says. "But I'll tell you right now, things like that make it all worthwhile."

*   *   *

Hansen has pretty much given up hope for Tiffany on the day of her meltdown. After the way she carried on in the time-out room, he doubts anything good will happen to her for the rest of the afternoon.

At 1 p.m., he heads to the bus circle for dismissal. He stands at his usual post, the radio still talking on his shoulder. Scanning the faces of the kids who brush past him, he greets the ones who make eye contact and some who don't.

"Antonio! Have a good one!"

"See you later, Brian!"

A student runs past him with a sheet of paper in his hand.

"I got a hundred!" the boy yells.

"Awesome, man," Hansen responds.

Then he sees Tiffany. She's walking slowly, alone as usual. Someone has wiped her face, but her shirt is still stained with spaghetti.

He heads toward her, then changes his mind. He can tell she doesn't want to talk.

Head down, shoulders slumped, she climbs the steps of her bus. She finds a seat halfway back, collapses against the cushion and stares straight ahead.

Hansen watches from the sidewalk and wonders what she's thinking. He knows she wouldn't tell him even if he asked. He watches the bus pull away from the curb and silently wishes her well.

He heads back to his office and with one backward glance over his shoulder thinks:

Maybe tomorrow will be a better day for Tiffany. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day for them all.