The Franklin police officer was making his typical stop, checking in on the students and teachers at Webb Elementary, when he caught sight of the blonde-haired little girl on the staircase.
Three teachers or school employees were following her. Maybe more.
She was carrying a can of Yoo-hoo and had been threatening to throw it at the teachers who were trying to get her to the office. The child had become upset in the classroom and was threatening to leave the building.
She was 6 years old.
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“I could not believe my eyes and ears,” patrolman Jason Hyneman said of what he witnessed over the winter.
He stepped in, used a stern voice, and told her to get to the office now. She threatened to throw the can at the man in the police uniform, and he told her she would be leaving the school with him if she did. And he would not be taking her home to her beloved video games.
She started moving, but her anger bubbled over again at one of the teachers who was following her. Hyneman got more stern.
Eventually, she went to the office to serve a timeout and get away from the class of more than 20 students that she had disrupted.
Hyneman’s head could not quit spinning. The principal, teachers, a counselor and office workers were spending hours every day trying to get one child under control.
The police officer asked her teacher and principal about the girl’s background. Then he went to visit her mother.
But what he experienced that day was normal in Room 103 and the halls of Webb Elementary when it comes to Mikayla Matthews.
The teachers, principal and counselor at Webb met Mikayla when she started kindergarten. She was bright, strong-willed, not used to structure, didn’t trust them and tried to be in charge. She had a hard time taking direction and then accepting being corrected.She came back as a first-grader. She was older. Bigger. Angrier.
She came to school late, if at all. Her outbursts came daily, and she would get mad unlike anything they had seen. She would throw things, scratch at people, use vulgar language, run around the room and knock things down and try to hit adults and students. During her outbursts, she was like a wild animal, even growling.
A typical five-minute timeout to get back on track would turn into a two-hour ordeal that could take over the classroom and the time of teachers, the principal and counselor.
Her classmates and teachers didn’t suffer through these outbursts every now and then. They were happening every single day. In some ways, her classmates had grown used to her behavior and would be able to carry on.
Principal Cheryl Moran described the daily scenes with Mikayla: Scary.
The little girl does not have any disorders or conditions to explain such behavior. School counselor Angie Clendening said her primary concern was with why Mikayla was acting out and so upset and frustrated and how to help her.
“We rarely saw tears,” Clendening said. “It was mostly fury.”
During her fits, Mikayla would tell Clendening and the teachers that she would just run away from them like she runs from her mother.
Usually, her teacher, Terri Shotts would stand in front of Mikayla, buffering the other children from anything she might throw. A couple times, the rest of the classroom was taken out of the room during what the school calls a “danger moment” due to Mikayla’s behavior.
Shotts would call in other teachers to help remove her. Teachers have to be certified to physically handle a child and perform a “safe carry.”
“We were basically pulling out all the stops and finding any resource we could to help her,” Clendening said.
They called Adult & Child, an organization that provides mental health services and works to improve the quality of life for adults and children, tried to help coach Mikayla’s mother and came up with a behavior plan to reward her.
And forget teaching Mikayla anything. Shotts had no idea what her academic abilities were because she would never do any work or offer a single clue about what she knew. Turns out, she is very bright.
In addition to her behavior at school, the staff was trying to figure out a way to get Mikayla to school. In the first semester of school, she missed nine days and was late 13 times.
Her mother struggled getting Mikayla to school if she didn’t want to come. In kindergarten, her mother would strap her into a stroller and push her because she worried she would run off.
Some days, Mikayla came to school hours late on an Access Johnson County bus.
“Mom was trying her best to get her here,” Clendening said. “But Mikayla knew that if she really didn’t want to go, there wasn’t much mom could do to make her go.”
The day of that first encounter, Hyneman, a 21-year police veteran, went to the neighborhood where Mikayla and her mother, Terri Matthews, live. They weren’t home. He came back hours later and made Mikayla tell her mother what had happened.It was clear to him and the teachers that Mikayla wanted to be in charge at home, and that her mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, was struggling to physically handle her. Mikayla’s father had died before she was born.
“He came to me and said if she doesn’t get straightened up soon, she will be impossible to deal with. He said I needed to get her straightened out right away,” Terri Matthews said.
Mikayla gave him dirty looks the entire time he was at her home. He told her she better come to school every day or he would come to her home to check on her.
“She needs a chance,” Hyneman told Terri Matthews that day. “You have to help give her that chance.”
Then he went to work.
He, too, contacted Adult & Child. He also called Department of Child Services and even juvenile probation, trying to find any resource to help.
When he was leaving the neighborhood, he ran into a child advocacy group that was already working with Mikayla. The caseworker told him they were about to close her case because there was nothing more to be done.
He didn’t buy it.
Hyneman started checking on Mikayla and speaking to her when he visited Webb nearly every day — whether Mikayla liked it or not.
If she’s given Hyneman what he calls the stink eye once, she’s given it a thousand times.
In the beginning, she would crawl under her desk and hide when he came into Room 103.
If she wasn’t at school, he would leave to find out why. Most often, he returned with her.
He’s never coddled her. He tells her in no uncertain terms how she is not to act.
Mikayla likes to tell her mother that she still doesn’t like Officer Hyneman, even after he found her and her mother getting ready to walk to school after they had missed the bus. He gave them a ride that day.
“You don’t have to like him. Just respect him,” Terri Matthews tells her daughter.
Now, when he walks into a room, she says ‘hi.’ Sometimes, she even shows a hint of excitement.
Earlier this month, she danced for him to the “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” song when he stopped in the classroom.
“I’m just shocked at her,” Shotts said. “It’s almost a complete turnaround.”
Behind the scenes, Hyneman stays in touch so that the school knows he is always available. He’s come in on his day off and brought his dog with him.
During field day, Hyneman was on-call to come to the school if needed because Mikayla is known to get easily upset if she doesn’t win at an activity or game.
She isn’t the only child who has changed since Hyneman became a regular at school.An angry child whose mother has cancer was worried about a classmate who had gashed his head open in a bike wreck. He wanted to get enough money to buy his friend a bicycle helmet.
Hyneman showed up with a helmet, and they all watched as the boy gave it to his friend.
In Hyneman’s eyes, the moment was awesome.
“He just showed up and did that,” Clendening said. “That’s the kind of thing that he has been doing. The effect that he has had on our students has been entirely positive and very powerful.”
To some children, he is “the cops.” He is the man behind the threat that adults have used at home or the talk that children have overheard.
“For a lot of these kids, it is chaos at home,” Hyneman said.
Clendening said Hyneman, without fail, is always smiling.
“That speaks to kids,” she said. “They look at your face and they get a vibe from you. He’s fun, funny and smiling, but he is consistent and firm. He talks to them straightforwardly, and they respond to him.”
Mikayla’s response indicates that she has learned she can trust him.
“I think deep down what she wants most of all is to know that someone is in charge and taking care of her, and she believes he is taking care of her,” Clendening said.
To be certain, the credit for the turnaround isn’t due to Hyneman alone. Her teacher has never given up or looked for an out.
She has also documented every action. Acknowledged every good decision — even the most routine — that the little girl has made. And held her hands and danced and danced as the end of school approached.
“It’s been a village working with her,” Clendening said. “Mrs. Shotts has been incredible with her, very consistent, very patient. To ask a teacher to give a token to a child repeatedly, while teaching 25 other children, and keeping all the data on her behavior and whether it is working.”
Clendening watched Shotts and Mikayla in the gym recently while they were dancing.
“Watching the two of them together, just laughing together and having such a great time, that relationship with Mrs. Shotts has been priceless as well,” she said.
“There have been a lot of people who really love Mikayla and want her to succeed.”
Her turnaround wasn’t immediate and wasn’t entirely expected.The first changes the Webb team noticed is that Mikayla started coming to school.
By the end of school this week, she was rarely hitting. She completed her testing. She realized if she is at school on time, she doesn’t have to miss recess, music or gym to make up her work.
“She has come so far,” Shotts said. “She is even fun to be around.”
They aren’t looking for or ever expecting perfection. But progress is apparent.
They noted to themselves when Matthews had arrived at school on time two days in a row. Then three. Then, she had been at school every morning for an entire week. Had that ever happened before?
On a recent field trip to downtown Franklin, the frustrated child shoved another student and hit a teacher. Shotts called the school to come get her.
All year, when she wasn’t able to calm herself, she had to be sent home. But Hyneman came and talked to Mikayla for a few minutes. This time, she calmed herself quickly and was able to come back to the group.
That’s no small feat.
For months, she had spewed threats and hatred and never, ever cared that she might hurt someone physically or that her words could sting. The tears that easily fall for other first-graders when they are in trouble or upset had never come to Mikayla.
“Now, when she does something to someone, she feels that remorse,” Shotts said. “Mikayla will say ‘I got angry, but I made a mistake.’ But before, she wouldn’t care who she hurt.”
Her official school record shows a turn.
During the first semester of school, she missed nine days, was late 13 times, served in-school suspensions five times for trying to hurt others and was sent home for an out-of-school suspension six times.
Out-of-school suspensions are practically unheard of at the elementary level and happen when a child can’t be contained.
Since students’ return in January, she has been absent two days, late five times and served two in-school suspensions. Not once has she been sent home.
“The child we have now is the child she’s always been,” Moran said.
Every day that Mikayla earns 15 tokens for making the right decisions, she gets to pick a small prize from a treasure chest. The plan to help her stay on track also lets her take two brief breaks per day whenever she is becoming upset.
Recently, Mikayla had just used her first break of the day but wanted to get out of math and use her second pass. She was angry and had a look on her face, Shotts said. Here it comes, the teacher suspected.
Shotts let her use her break, and Mikayla went to the office. She came back a couple of minutes later, and Hyneman was walking with her. He had stopped in and helped get her back on track.
“The other day she told me she loved me,” Shotts said.
Her teacher’s immediate answer: “Mikayla, I love you too!”
Terri Matthews started taking her daughter to church as well and working with Adult & Child caseworkers.
Matthews said Hyneman has gone above and beyond what anyone should expect of a police officer and that he is a big reason why her daughter’s behavior has improved.
He plans to check in on her this summer, and maybe take Mikayla fishing with his daughter, if her mom says it is OK.
As a Franklin police officer, he is not assigned to work in the schools but chooses to make it part of his daily routine and to try to form relationships with students and staff. Officers had been encouraged to be visible in the schools.
Hyneman still responds to calls for help, takes criminal reports and goes to traffic accidents.
“Stopping cars and writing tickets is not my important thing to do now,” Hyneman said. “This is my inspiration. This is my highlight of the day.”
At the same time, it is the most mentally exhausting work he has done. No case is ever closed when it comes to trying to help children.
The situation at Webb is happening at all schools, Clendening said. When police officers form relationships in the schools, students know that if they are ever in trouble they can call on the officer.
“Kudos to the police department for giving the officers the latitude. It’s been very powerful,” Clendening said.