A Resource For Students: SROs Start Clothing Closet For Okaloosa Schools
School resource Officers Jerry Hooks and Eddie Duran have spent the last few years patrolling the hallways of Choctawhatchee High School. But their work goes beyond being the eyes and ears of the school. They're also the masterminds behind the Choctaw Clothing Closet, a free resource for students that offers gently-used clothes and shoes.
The program has expanded to every school in the Okaloosa County School District.
It all started two years ago when Deputies Hooks and Duran noticed some students weren’t wearing weather-appropriate clothes.
“Some of our kids were coming to school when it was cold with no jackets still wearing shorts and stuff,” said Hooks. “So, we started asking what they needed and found out a lot of our kids needed stuff, so we started asking for donations from the teachers and it just got bigger and bigger.”
Donations were first kept in a closet at the high school. Since the pandemic, officers said the needs have increased — as well as the donations. The clothes were moved to an empty classroom, where the school’s food pantry also is located.
“During the pandemic, we ensured that students have what they needed,” said Hooks.
Officers don’t keep tabs on how many kids are served or who is served. There are no questions asked. In the closet, students grab a bag and select items from the shelves and clothing racks just as if they were shopping.
“There’s no strings attached, no signatures, nothing needed just let us know what you need and we’ll make it happen,” said Duran.
Students are able to focus on school more when they’re not hungry or wearing clothes that are too small, which is why teachers have embraced the program. At Choctaw, the student population is approximately 42% economically disadvantaged.
Hooks recalled one instance when a student came to school in soaking wet clothes.
“The teacher thought he got caught in the rain but actually he had just taken his clothes out of the washing machine. The (clothes) were still soaking wet. “We ran downstairs and literally gave him a whole outfit: new shoes, new pants, new sweatshirt — everything — and he went to class.”
It should be noted that the donated clothes are current trends and gently used. Any items that are dated or too worn are taken to Goodwill. Hooks and Duran said they want to eliminate the stigma of help.
Duran said the clothing closet is just one of the ways he and Hooks try to build trust with students who don’t always view law enforcement in a positive light.
“If we can show the students we’re not what they see on TV. We’re not what they see in movies,” said Duran. “There really are a lot of good law enforcement officers out there, and I think myself and Deputy Hooks, I think we do absolutely everything to ensure the kids know we are here for them no matter what.”
The clothing closet program has become so successful it’s implemented in all of the county schools. And the deputies even drop off their kids’ clothes to be donated at their respective schools.
“It’s just a great idea; I think every school is benefiting from it,” said Hooks.
Okaloosa County Superintendent Marcus Chambers echoes the sentiment and added the district is “blessed” to have the working partnership with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office.
“They are truly part of our school community,” Chambers said in an email. “What Deputy Hooks and Deputy Duran have done with the Choctaw Clothing Closet is yet another example of how our SROs go above and beyond for our students.”
The Sheriff’s Office SRO program has received several statewide awards. And Hooks was named 2020 School Resource Officer of the Year by the Florida Association of School Resource Officers.
For Hooks and Duran, the job goes further than patrolling school grounds.
“The officers in schools need to look at the broad picture of everything,” said Hooks. “The food need is there, the clothing needs for school — and it doesn’t have to be because of Corona [sic]. It’s been going on. If you see a kid coming in with shoes falling apart, it’s easy for us to find shoes for him. The deputies have to see that. They have to notice their students and know what their life is like at home.”
Clothing donations can be dropped off at any Okaloosa County School. For locations, visit okaloosaschools.com.