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KNAU and Arizona News

Young Students Respond To Tragedy By Offering Compassion

KNAU/Aaron Granillo

It's been just over a month since Flagstaff police officer Tyler Stewart was killed in the line of duty. The rookie officer was shot to death while following up on a domestic violence case. As investigators continue to search for a motive, Stewart's fellow officers - and the community - are trying to make sense of the tragedy. So is a group of Flagstaff middle school students. They're responding to Stewart's death by showing compassion and respect for law enforcement.

Hundreds of students, teachers, parents and first responders fill the gym at Mount Elden Middle School. They're gathered for a day of remembrance and appreciation - a day that starts with 24 seconds of silence, one for each year of officer Tyler Stewart's life.

But then, things get rowdy as teacher Barry George takes the stage to lead the crowd in a chant of, "Hands out! We appreciate you!" The motto is a twist on "Hands up, don't shoot", a phrase that's become synonymous with recent police-involved shootings across the country. They've sparked outrage and distrust towards law enforcement. But today, these kids are not protesting. They're extending their hands in support.

George says his students came up with the motto in the aftermath of Stewart's death. "We had this idea about showing gratitude to the police department in their time of grief from the loss of Officer Stewart," he says. The students were inspired to put on a school-wide essay contest exploring the idea of compassion for law enforcement. George says, "They were some of the most heartfelt expressions of gratitude that I have heard from human beings."

Jalen Rinne was one of the contest winners. As he read his essay in front of the crowd, the 7th grader was overcome by emotion. "Thank you that I can go to bed at night knowing that I am safe," Rinne read, his voice cracking. "Thank you to officer Tyler Stewart who died trying to keep us safe. I'm grateful for all these brave men and women who not only serve us, but cities and countries all over the world."

Flagstaff Police Chief Kevin Treadway attended the assembly as an honored guest. He says he's never seen anything quite like it. "It really does just mean so much to those of us in law enforcement to see this, especially from the children. And, it's their idea to bring this forward. It's just touching, very touching."

Treadway worked with Tyler Stewart as a cadet, and eventually hired him onto the force. He's also a longtime friend of Stewart's family. Treadway says, "I know that this kind of support is just so incredibly important to them at this very dark time. It's sort of like a blanket of comfort, really, for a family that's grieving and in a time of need."

Towards the end of the assembly, after the band played its final song, dozens of Flagstaff police officers were called to the front of the stage. They stood in reverence, in uniform with hands crossed, while the audience showed their appreciation with applause. As 13 year old Olivia Duncan put it, these officers showed courage in the face of pain. In a poem she wrote for the occasion, Duncan said, "Someone with courage is bold and aware, courage is something all policemen share. It says it in the badge they wear. Our fallen officer has taken a stand to protect ones in all our lives in his hands. Some heroes wear capes. Mine wear a badge. Thank you, Flagstaff Police Department."