December 2, 2021

More than the uniform

Cortland school resource officer connects with students

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Officer Rob Reyngoudt works at his desk in the Cortland Junior High School. Last week, he was awarded the Regional Exceptional Service Award for his work as a school resource officer with the Cortland Enlarged City School District.

Long before he was an officer in the hallways of Cortland’s schools, Rob Reyngoudt was once a student roaming the same halls he now keeps safe.

Reyngoudt has been the Cortland Enlarged City School District’s resource officer for 16 years.

Reyngoudt has a National Association of School Resource Officers certification — something only a handful of New York officers have — and to add a cherry on top, Reyngoudt received the Regional Exceptional Service Award at the association’s national conference last week.

“We have incredible people working in this district, and Officer Reyngoudt is one of those people who strives to offer relationships with his kids — with the valedictorian, with the kids who hate school, and every student in between,” said John Zarcone, the Cortland High School grade 11 and 12 principal, who nominated Reyngoudt.

Reyngoudt was a Cortland police officer and involved in a community policing program through the youth bureau before he got his school resource officer certification. Working with, and protecting, the kids has always been a calling, he said.

“They trust him, and that’s a big deal because nowadays a lot of people have this perception of the police, that they can’t trust them,” Zarcone said. “Rob Reyngoudt takes that feeling away. Kids know this is a guy who they can trust.”

That’s about connecting with the students, Reyngoudt said.

“I build positive relationships with kids who may not have ever had an opportunity to see a police officer in a good way, in a non-confrontational situation,” he said. “It’s the person behind the uniform that makes a difference — it’s the smile on your face, it’s eye contact, it’s genuinely caring about your kids. They’ll see past what you’re wearing and they’ll come to you as a person.”

Some of the relationships last beyond graduation day.

“I’ve been invited to graduation parties, I’ve helped kids tie their ties on big days, I’ve had kids come in here years later and bring their own children in because they wanted to introduce me to their son or daughter,” Reyngoudt said. “I’ve gone to funerals for our students, and I’ve been asked to attend funerals with them after a parent has died. There are tears of joy and tears of sorrow when you work in a school long enough. But at the end of the day, I can say that I made a positive difference.”

Growing up having positive interactions with a uniformed police officer could help students in the future, Zarcone said.

“A lot of them look up to him, because of the uniform he wears and they see him as a hero,” he said. “But he’s also reading books to them, playing classroom games and jumping into activities — throwing footballs around, playing kickball. By interacting with the kids, he really solidifies the fact that although they think of him as a hero, he’s making himself more human.”

Reyngoudt’s goal is to build that trust with his students, so they’re not afraid to go to law enforcement for help, no matter what the problem may be.

The job is a bit more than that, though. “We’re making friends and building relationships, but I’m also keeping an eye on the doors for any stranger danger, anyone who might want to come in and cause a problem,” Reyngoudt said. “Worst-case scenario doesn’t happen very often, but it’s something that we prepare for and train for — that’s the law enforcement side of it.”

Reyngoudt also teaches kids and visits their classrooms to give law-related lessons on topics such as bullying awareness and the harmfulness of vaping.

“He also has a way of having students come up with their own solutions. He doesn’t say, ‘this is what you should do’ or ‘this is how you should handle that,’” Zarcone said. “He talks to the students and, through their conversations, they come up with their own plan of what they would do differently next time. Meanwhile, he guided them through the whole thing and they didn’t even realize it.”

When he’s not working with the kids, he’s training fellow school resource officers across the country. Ideally, every school would have its own officer, Reyngoudt said.

“Police officers can’t do it alone — that’s part of community policing,” Reyngoudt said. “We work with them to identify ways that we can make their community better, their neighborhood better, their school better.”