Though the hallways are crowded during the lunch hour at Sacajawea Middle School, it’s easy to spot school resource officer Walt Pegram. He’s the guy in the Spokane Police Department uniform surrounded by kids.
“Hey, Officer Walt, do you have candy?” a boy said.
And, of course, he does. Pegram stuffs his pockets with handfuls of candy before leaving his office.
“Thanks for being awesome,” he said, handing the boy a treat.
“I love you, Walt!” the kid yelled before being swallowed up by the crowd.
“What do I like about my job? Standing in the middle of a bunch of laughing kids giving me high-fives,” he said. “The greatest impact often isn’t the counsel I give, it’s simply listening to their stories. Everyone has a story.”
After 24 years as a school resource officer, Pegram is retiring, and he has decidedly mixed feelings about it.
“My life has been kids,” he said.
Prior to his job as a school resource officer, Pegram worked for many years in the private sector as a youth counselor.
Perhaps that’s why he sees his role in Spokane Public Schools as less cop, more counselor.
As he headed outdoors, a girl approached.
“I got 30 out of 30 on my English final,” she said. “I thought I was going to fail.”
Pegram gave her a high-five.
“Keep on keeping on,” he said. “You’re going to be awesome next year.”
Sacajawea principal Jeremy Ochse has worked with Pegram in several schools throughout the district.
“He’s such a kind man,” Ochse said. “He builds relationship and rapport with students. He’s impacted a lot of kids along the way.”
As a student shuffled past him, Pegram said, “Here’s one of my great kids!”
The boy smiled and took a piece of candy.
“I passed all my finals, so far,” he said.
Before the halls began to fill again at second lunch, Pegram reflected on his career.
In 1995, he was North Central High School’s first resource officer. Much has changed since then.
“Schools are nothing more than a reflection of community and cultural values,” he said. “I see kids so focused on social media and their cellphones. Humans are meant to live in human relationships.”
He believes technology has hindered more than helped that need for affirmation and connection.
“There are no bad kids – just kids who make bad choices,” Pegram said.
When asked if he thinks school resource officers should be armed, he responded that he doesn’t have a solid opinion.
“I’m in the middle,” Pegram said. “When are we as a culture going to accept personal responsibility and realize we are our brother’s keeper? We as a society need to do a better job coming alongside kids who are struggling.”
Ochse said that’s where Pegram shines.
“Walt has been my go-to guy over the years for many students who are struggling,” he said.
Not long ago, Pegram ran into one of those students when he was working a football game at Albi Stadium.
A young woman in her 30s approached him with her mother. Her two sons were playing in the game.
“Do you remember me?” she said. “Every time I ran from home, you picked me up and took me back. You never gave up on me. I wouldn’t be here today without you.”
Pegram’s eyes filled at the memory.
“She cried. Then I cried,” he said.
But the soft-spoken man’s tears aren’t always because of joy.
The kids he couldn’t save haunt him.
“I lost a young man who was always in trouble with the law,” he recalled. “I tried to help him on so many different occasions. I tried to help him turn his life around.”
But one Halloween night, the young man hanged himself. He was 19.
Experiences like that take their toll, and Pegram, 64, knows it’s time to retire. To play some golf and enjoy time with his wife of 44 years, and their three adult kids and six grandchildren.
He may be retiring, but he’s not leaving schools or kids altogether.
“I’m going to volunteer in my granddaughter’s school,” he said.
And as he leaves the job he feels like he was meant for, he has one request of the community.
“Please,” he said. “Please love our kids.”
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