During normal school day operations, Spring Branch ISD Police officer Bern Collum regularly stops in for lunch at the campuses on his patrol route between Stratford and Memorial high schools. “The kids love it,” he said.
“I tell the teachers I am like a grandparent to the kids – I get them all riled up during lunch, then leave for the teachers to settle them down,” Collum says with a friendly smile. Now, there are no students to see.
SBISD Police Officer Diego Tristan usually patrols in the Dairy Ashford neighborhoods. Based at SBISD’s Westchester substation, he covers much of the district’s west side, from Memorial Middle to Nottingham Elementary. All his schools remain closed at this time.
Colleague John Garner is an accident investigator, called on during normal operations with bus or district vehicle incidents. Today, SBISD today is accident-free – there are no buses rolling.
Lately, all three officers have been part of the safety and security team in place during daily distribution of Grab and Go student meals at separate sites.
On Monday, April 6, Officer Collum was providing traffic control at Spring Forest Middle School. Officers Tristan and Garner helped support the meal distributions at the much-visited Hollibrook Elementary and Bear Boulevard School for Early Learning, respectively.
There is no “work from home” option for SBISD police officers. Around the clock, 38 men and women officers continue to work to keep the district’s facilities, staff and students safe. While students are not physically in schools these days, the police are still on duty, and continue to make SBISD’s community a calm and peaceful place.
“Regardless of the circumstances or the events that happen, know that we are always out here to serve our students, schools and community,” Police Chief Dareing said. “We miss both our staff and students, but during this time we understand that it is more important to keep everyone safe at home.”
Ready to come back, be back
Officer Collum has worked with the SBISD Police for 15 years after a career change from a construction contractor. Growing up without a father, he wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people.
“I knew I wanted to work around youth,” Collum said of his decision to work for the school district. “I like their young spirits.”
He started his SBISD career assigned to Spring Woods High School. He was open and approachable with the students, many of whom would stop by just to chat. While he enjoyed building relationships, the students understood he would not hesitate to “do his job” if they made poor choices.
On a recent day, Officer Collum recognized one of his former Spring Woods High students waiting in the SBISD Child Nutrition Service food supply line with his own young family inside their truck. Collum was able to recall that young father’s name. He congratulated him on having a good career as an electrician.
“That meant a lot to me to see him be successful since he had a rough time when in high school,” he said.
At Spring Forest’s meal site, parents will pause in the distribution line so students in the cars can greet the friendly officer whom they know from regular visits at schools along his route.
“They tell me they are READY to come back to school,” said Officer Collum. “And I tell them, I am ready to have them back!”
He sees all types of people in the food distribution lines, and knows kids can eat a lot having raised two boys of his own.
“Parents are used to sending kids to school for some meals,” said Collum. “I know [receiving food] means a lot to the families. If my two boys were still at home, I would come get some food, too!”
Concerned about our economy and future
Officer Diego Tristan got the school police officer position he was seeking after applying with SBISD several times. With more than two years in SBISD, he has also served with College of the Mainland in Texas City and at University of Houston’s central campus.
“I love it here,” he said at Hollibrook Elementary, waving misguided drivers into the correct traffic lanes. “I’ve worked where there is too much micro-management. Here, Chief [Dareing] entrusts us to understand what we need to be doing, and how to do it correctly. I like that.”
A father of two daughters, both young adults, he’s really glad to have his 20-year-old at home from New York, where she was attending the Culinary Institute of America. He’s concerned about what COVID-19’s shutdown might do to both the local and national economy, too.
“How, as a nation, will we jump back from this?” he asks rhetorically. “I worry this will be hard for the economy, and I think a lot of things we are not thinking about will change even when we get back to all the open restaurants and bars, and other kinds of establishments.” And schools, too, maybe.
For the past six weekdays, Hollibrook Principal Anabel Taylor has stood outside with Child Nutrition Services workers at the bus and parent drop-off circle. The cafeteria workers chat with drivers and residents of the many nearby apartments who walk through an access gate to obtain student meals.
Hollibrook Elementary serves families who are mostly low socioeconomic status. Many include moms and dads who are immigrants. Almost all students at this campus were considered at risk – before the virus cancelled schools across Houston and Texas.
Last week, Hollibrook served breakfast and lunch to more than 800 children under age 18 for its first four days. Last Thursday, about 900 meals were served, including weekend food distribution.
“Before this [COVID-19], most of our parents had jobs. This has now put many of these families out of jobs, and without this breakfast and lunch, I don’t know if our kids would have enough to eat,” stateds Principal Taylor. “What will happen to my kids if we’re not here?”
No place like home
Officer John Garner grew up in Spring Branch. A 1995 graduate of Northbrook High, he worked at Harris County Precinct 5 and for Spring Valley Village Police before joining SBISD.
He lives in district with his wife, who is an administrator at Woodview Elementary. One adult son is serving in the Army, currently assigned to Fort Polk in Louisiana; another child attends YES Prep at Northbrook High.
On Monday, he was providing support at Bear Boulevard Pre-K on Westview, which borders on his old village patrol neighborhood. He has been with SBISD for six years, working as a patrol and a main accident investigator. He’s focused on school and facilities security now.
“I help make sure that school property is secure,” he said. “Times are tough now for many people, and some people may decide to do things that they don’t usually do.” That’s why he’s here and visible.
The 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., made him decide on his law enforcement career. He’s sold on policing and investigation, and Spring Branch, too.
He has given thought to moving elsewhere a few times. The answer is always ‘No.’ “This is home, and it’s a great location,” Officer Garner said.
"We look forward to getting back to normal operations but until then we are still out here, ready to help out and help keep everyone safe," the Police Chief also said.
"This is a time when the entire district’s Collective Greatness and Collaborative Spirit really comes out. Our understanding, dedicated officers are prime examples of these Core Values. We look forward to getting back to normal operations, but until then we are still out here, ready to help out, and help keep everyone safe.”