The First Responder Spotlight Series features law enforcement, firefighters, EMS, and other emergency personnel who make it their business to serve our communities, often in ways we never see, each and every day.
The series is sponsored by McKeithen’s True Value Hardware in Statesboro.
Officer Justin Gawthrop is a 25-year veteran of the Statesboro Police Department and a longstanding member of the Bulloch County community, but over the last five years, he’s become well-known to a younger population with his work as the School Resource Officer at Statesboro High School.
Gawthrop grew up out west, joined the military when he was seventeen, and was stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina just a few weeks after he turned eighteen. As a fan of The South, he went on to attend Georgia Southern University where he studied Justice Studies and completed an internship at the Statesboro Police Department. Upon graduating, Gawthrop was hired as a patrol officer and he’s worked for the agency ever since. That was 25 years ago.
The department was much smaller when Gawthrop, as was the Statesboro community, so he’s watched both change considerably. From Day 1, Gawthrop says he has looked up to Lieutenant Tony Gore as a role model. Gore, a 28-year veteran of the department himself, was his Field Training Officer and later his supervisor on day shift, and laid the foundation of professionalism and dedication that Gawthrop aspires to embody as a now-seasoned officer.
During his tenure at SPD, Gawthrop married his wife, Danielle, a Statesboro native, and they had four sons. Statesboro also became home for several family members from out west, too, as they visited and found they loved the community as well. But after twenty years patrolling the streets and prayerful consideration with his wife, Gawthrop said he was interested in a change.
In December 2016, Gawthrop transitioned to Statesboro High School where he currently works as the School Resource Officer. As if the change wasn’t grand enough, his introduction to the overwhelming environment came in the middle of the school year. “I spent a lot of hours on the back porch with my wife, telling her about what I had come across that day. But what I learned pretty quickly, for the students at least, is that Monday’s mountain is Friday’s mole hill.”
Statesboro High is a reflection of the city, Gawthrop says. Different races, different cultures, different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds – it’s a melting pot. He calls it ‘the second largest city in Bulloch County’ with 2,000 people on four and a half acres of campus. But he loves it because it’s a place where he can lay a foundation for some of the students. “Some of their understanding of police is not good and I want to be that first guy in and maybe establish things on a friendly, personal basis.”
It’s also a transition from patrolling the streets because of time. Gawthrop explained that interactions on the street are generally brief before you have to move on to the next and you may never see the person again. At the school, he’s with students every day and he works to remove the anonymity by learning the names of the students. “Once you learn a kid’s name, it opens that door up and you’ll get the head nod, acknowledgement, those things.” Four names he didn’t have to learn? His sons – all of whom have been students at the high school at some point during his tenure. In fact, at one point, three of them were students there while he was the SRO.
It’s been effective, too, particularly with building trust among students. “I’m an option for them. They can confide in me in addition to the teachers and administrators.” While the job has been fulfilling from the get-go, Gawthrop said he really knew he was making an impact when three sisters from the same family graduated and wanted him to attend their graduation festivities and now, plenty of the students that have graduated still keep in touch or will give him an update when they’re back home.
It isn’t always easy though. Arresting a student after working to build a relationship can be a disappointment, but Gawthrop relies on the personal responsibility of the student. “I’ve told them – I didn’t get you into this, you got yourself into this.” It’s why he focuses on trying to have conversations with them before a situation escalates.
That’s why communication is what Gawthrop says has been the most valuable lesson he’s learned while at Statesboro High. With parents, they want to know what’s happening while their kid is at school and they’re at work. And students? They need a listening ear. “They just want to be heard, for someone to listen and acknowledge that yeah, high school is tough. But you also get to see the outcome, you have more resolve. There’s a lot of things on the street that you never know how it ends. In working with the students, you get the opportunity to see some of them right their course.”
As the new school year is set to begin, Gawthrop is looking forward to getting to know another class of students – his fifth full year with the school system. “I love it. I’ll stay as long as they’ll have me.”
Gawthrop was nominated by Chief Mike Broadhead.