As lunch began Thursday at Shanklin Elementary School, children stared wide-eyed at the uniformed Beaufort County Sheriff's deputy walking around the cafeteria.
Within minutes, the students, ages 4 through 6, came unglued from their chairs and swarmed around Lt. Alfredo Givens, shouting out their names, facts about their pets or what they wanted to be when they grow up.
Sebastian Collins, 5, even saved him a seat.
Givens grinned warmly and shook tiny hands as he walked from table to table.
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The new visitor at Shanklin is part of a Sheriff's Office program launched this week that sends school resource officers to district elementary schools during their routine patrols.
"We're here to build a positive relationship with these children," Givens said. "They need to see that law enforcement officers are human and can be friendly."
Givens helped lead 16 deputies through a one-day training session on their new roles Monday, which taught them what to expect from different age groups and from children with disabilities or special needs.
By Tuesday, they were already making rounds.
The shift schedules won't allow the same deputy to routinely be at the same school, but the goal is for each school to have a deputy visit three to four times each week. Givens said the most important goal is for children to feel comfortable and safe around any deputy in a hunter green and khaki uniform.
"The common denominator is the uniform," he said. "If there ever is a situation where they need help ... we want them to understand they can come to us. We do care about them."
Hilton Head Island Early Childhood Center principal Kim Bratt said the program will be especially helpful for her kindergartners, who are learning about community helpers such as police, firefighters and teachers.
"It gives them the ability to put that curriculum to a person and gives them a real-life experience," she said.
Principal Gretchen Keefner at Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts said she led Patrolman Jacob Scott on a school tour Tuesday. He popped his head into some classrooms and explained to two students coming from a meeting with a guidance counselor that adults have to follow rules, too, Keefner said.
She likes the idea of having different deputies drop by instead of having a single officer assigned to the school.
"I think it's so positive for our students, and from the safety aspect," she said.
The new school resource officer program has been a goal of the Sheriff's Office for years and is not a reaction to the shootings in Newtown, Conn., Sheriff P.J. Tanner said. However, the launch of the program came at a good time and will benefit school security, said district head of protective services Chris Barrow.
Tanner hopes to increase the number of school resource officers. County Council is expected to vote this month on a proposal to reassign six Beaufort County Animal Shelter & Control officers from the county animal shelter to elementary schools, according to county officials.