Students arriving for the first day of class on Thursday at St. Mary's Catholic Elementary and Preschool in Joplin were welcomed by a familiar and special guest.
Joplin police Officer Rick Hirshey returned as a school resource officer, an occasion that marked a closing chapter in his recovery from a March shooting that killed two of his colleagues.
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"We are just so happy to welcome him home to St. Mary's," said Joanne Lown, principal at St. Mary's. "He's so admired and revered in our school. What he endured in March and how he has worked so hard to come back is such a story of triumph and perseverance."
Hirshey is in his 14th year serving as a school resource officer with St. Mary's. He has been with the Joplin Police Department for 21 years and currently serves as the school resource officer for East Middle School and its feeder elementary schools, Martin Luther Christian School and St. Mary's.
Hirshey had briefly retired from the Joplin Police Department in June 2021, but he returned to help out during a staff shortage. In March, Hirshey was shot in the face during the pursuit of a suspect who had shot and killed Cpl. Benjamin Cooper and Officer Jake Reed. Since then, he has faced a long recovery and returned to light duty at the department in June.
Hirshey said the timing of his recovery has been impeccable. On Wednesday, he saw his spinal neurologist and she released him. He will see his main doctor Friday and expects to be released for full duty.
With school starting this week as well, Hirshey is excited to return to his job as a school resource officer. The officer who previously held the position left for a new opportunity, and Hirshey jumped at the chance to return.
"That's when the captain said, 'Hey, the school job is back open. ...' I didn't even have to think about it — it's mine, it's mine," Hirshey said. "I've known for about a month I was getting to come back to the schools and looking forward to it."
'Great to get back'
On Thursday, Hirshey and Lown stood at the entrance to St. Mary's to greet students. Hirshey squatted to talk with the smaller preschoolers, engulfed in their backpacks, about their summer trips. He gave enthusiastic high-fives to the older students, many of whom he will teach in the school's Rise Above program.
Whether they shyly clung to their parents or bounced toward the school doors, every student got a welcoming smile from Hirshey.
"It's great to get back into the schools and see the kids again," Hirshey said. "This is where I feel I have the biggest impact. With these kids, you can hopefully get them started down a path where they don't do the things that will get them in trouble later."
Beyond connecting with students, Hirshey also leads the Rise Above program at St. Mary's, a program for fifth graders that covers things like introduction to drug awareness. Hirshey said his goal for Rise Above is to reiterate and reinforce what parents have already told students, but from a different angle.
"It's fun working with the kids because it's one of those situations where hopefully you'll say something that will help them pause when they're ready to engage in something that might do harm to themselves," Hirshey said. "Hopefully they'll pause and say, 'Wait, I learned this lesson from Officer Hirshey, and I should avoid this because these bad things can happen.'"
Lown said Hirshey is great at relating his stories and experience to connect with students. Coming from a law enforcement officer, these lessons carry more weight.
"He does a beautiful job of taking those subjects and relating them to the fifth graders in a way that not only do they understand, but they carry with them," Lown said.
Support during recovery
Lown had heard Hirshey was involved in the March 8 shooting on the day it happened, and the whole school recognized his name on the news. St. Mary's held a prayer service with faculty and staff at the end of the day, and they prayed for him throughout his recovery, Lown said. St. Mary's faculty, students and families made many cards for Hirshey, and the school had a charity dress-up day last spring, with proceeds going to his family.
As he received big hugs from St. Mary's parents and welcoming smiles from students, Hirshey said he appreciated the support.
"I have a stack of cards at the house about this big," Hirshey said, indicating a stack about a foot and a half tall with his hands. "Probably three-fourths of them are from my schools, from my kids. I've had tremendous support from my schools and the parents. It's awesome."
Another form of support Hirshey received from St. Mary's came about 10 years ago. A teacher gave him a St. Michael's medal that he has kept with him ever since. He pulled out the small silver medallion with the saint on it, which he carries next to his business cards. Hirshey said St. Michael is the saint that defends in battle, offering protection from wickedness and the devil.
Lown said she looks forward to getting back to a normal routine this school year after the restrictions of COVID-19. Hirshey's return to St. Mary's makes it more special, she said.
"It's amazing to see him back today; it makes my heart happy," Lown said. "He's always been such a special part of our school. Coming back out of retirement to serve is so typical of his giving heart and the sacrifice that he's always done. To have him back in our schools makes this a special day, and it's going to be an incredible year."
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