Photography by Jessica Turner.

Ashley Olford never thought much about becoming a police officer. Then a friend in the Dallas Police Department said officials were offering a $10,000 bonus for new hires. She quickly signed on the dotted line.

At the end of a long patrol shift, Olford answered a call to handle a problem teen who’d run away from her mom’s house twice before. She brought the girl home and prepared to return to the station, but the fed-up mom refused to let the girl back in. Olford, a person of profound faith, heard herself offer to take in the 15-year-old herself. 

“I knew then that this was my calling, that God placed me in this job for a reason,” says Olford, who moved into a bigger apartment and included the girl in vacations and family gatherings. After a year, she was ready to change her life and reunite with her grateful mother. The three remain close today.

Olford brought lessons from that experience to her 12 years as a school resource officer (SRO) at Thurgood Marshall Elementary and her current gig as SRO at Lake Highlands High School. The first lesson, she laughs, is not to bring every needy kid home with you.

“I can’t rescue them all, so I have to step back and find other ways to help.”

There are plenty of troubled teens at LHHS – kids fighting drug and alcohol addiction, kids who want to commit suicide, kids dealing with unwanted pregnancy and kids being abused at home. The SROs keep jars of candy in their second-floor office to woo students in to open up.

“You have no idea what these kids are going through at home. It’s heartbreaking,” says Olford.  “Some kids go to an empty home after school. They feed and dress themselves because their parents are working two or three jobs. Their only meal may be the one they get at school. Their only hug, their only interaction is from one of us.” 

Olford remembers the mom who came in because her daughter was repeatedly truant. The girl was surly when SROs questioned her and refused to speak at all. Olford assured her she’d never give up on her and checked on her repeatedly. A day later, the girl came bounding into the SRO office to shoot the breeze with her new friend.

“These kids want attention – even if it’s negative,” says Olford. “They want someone who cares about them. It took me a while to learn that, but now I hug them and bring them in and let them know I care.”

That doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and rainbows for SROs at LH-area schools. One only needs to turn on the television news to see campus threats are real. Olford’s main focus is to protect kids, teachers and fellow SROs from danger while on school grounds.

“Students bring things to school they shouldn’t bring or do things they shouldn’t do. It may indicate there is something going on at home, and I can often get them to open up in ways they can’t or won’t with teachers or administrators. 

I can reach out to CPS or social services and get the ball rolling to help a kid.”

The biggest challenge for Olford and her fellow officers, she says, is developing trust in young people.

“You see it in the news and hear it in the public – our job doesn’t have a great reputation right now in certain communities. Starting with these kids, I try to be the opposite of the negative they are hearing. I want to be the officer who treats people like I want my mom to be treated. I understand why some communities fear the badge. It’s from experience, it’s based on what they’ve seen and heard. I want kids to have a good experience. I may have to be tough, I may have to put handcuffs on them, but in the end I want to help.”