NORTH COURTLAND — Lawrence County deputy Vincent Hart, like other law enforcement officers around the country, mourned the loss of 20 young children killed Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
A lone gunman, Adam Lanza, 20, broke into the school and gunned down children and staff, leaving 26 dead. He also killed his mother and himself.
As the school resource officer at R.A. Hubbard School in North Courtland, which serves students in kindergarten through 12th grade, Hart said he can’t help but ask the inevitable question: Could a police officer in the school have made a difference?
“This was such a heartbreaking situation, but at the same time it reinforces my whole mission for being in the school — to keep children safe,” he said. “It also just strengthens my desire to be there, with those kids.”
Hart came to Lawrence County from the Madison County Sheriff’s Department. He got in to law enforcement after a military career in which he served in combat in both the Navy and Army’s special forces.
After three back-to-back overseas deployments in the Navy, he came home and became a police officer. But in 2001, after 9/11, he joined the Army as a Ranger, spending four years doing three rotations in Iraq. His work included establishing a school there. He also served in Afghanistan and South America. After being injured in 2005, he joined the National Guard in 2007 and went back to Iraq for more than an year.
“I just enjoyed being with the soldiers,” he said. “I came back from Iraq in 2008 and that was it. I began to focus on other things.”
One of his greatest focuses was rescuing animals, particularly German shepherds.
“I pared them down to just the most severely abused dogs because there for a while I was overwhelmed with so many,” he said. “I also breed German shepherds.”
The rehabilitation of the abused dogs is more than a hobby for Hart, it’s part of his contribution to society.
“I rehabilitate them so they function in society,” he said. “I get them to a point that I can put them in good homes. It takes about six to eight months to rehabilitate a dog that’s been abused and neglected.”
Hart incorporates his love of animals into the anti-bullying program he teaches at school.
“I incorporate puppies with the lessons because many kids don’t understand the severity of how bullying can tear someone down, and it’s not unlike abusing an animal,” he said. “Most kids can relate to a small puppy. And if you can tell the story of an abused animal, then you’re reaching them and not preaching to them.”
Hart also incorporates the importance of good health and fitness into his job. As a police officer, he said, being fit contributes to confidence on the job. It’s part of his mentoring responsibility to encourage students to live healthy lifestyles, he said.
“My ultimate goal is to ensure these kids’ well-being first and foremost,” he said. “My second goal is to be a mentor to them. They love my work with animals so this education is reaching their hearts and if I can reach a child and touch his life for the good, then I’ve succeeded.”
As for the effect of the Connecticut shootings on his own life, Hart said he’s been reflective on the training he’s received not only in the military but as a police officer.
“You can never be complacent, and you must always have a plan,” he said. “I’ve taken a very in-depth active shooter course where we went through all kinds of scenarios. It’s all about having a plan and always, always, being aware of everything around you.”
R.A. Hubbard history teacher Darin Liles called Hart “an inspiration to our (school) kids and me.”
“We normally think of special-ops guys as tough and rugged, but the second (Hart) walked in with a puppy he won those kids over. He gave to his country and is still doing it. We feel safer just having him here with us at R.A. Hubbard.”
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