Quaker Valley hires retired state trooper as police officer

Tuesday, September 3, 2019 | 6:01 AM

David Watts was greeted with high fives and fist bumps as he made his way through the cafeteria at Quaker Valley Middle School.

In just a few days on the job, Watts, who started as a school police officer in the district on Aug. 21, was becoming a familiar, friendly face for students and staff.

“He’s just pretty cool. He’s really nice,” said eighth-grader Connor Dennae, 13. “He always makes sure everyone is happy.”

It was Watts’ personality — a man who kids would gravitate towards — that made him stand out for the job, said Quaker Valley school police Officer Aaron Vanatta.

“That’s what really keeps your buildings safe, building those relationships with kids,” Vanatta said. The goal is that kids will feel comfortable talking to the officer, so they share what’s going on and hopefully prevent dangerous incidents.

Quaker Valley received a $160,000 grant from the PA Commission on Crime and Delinquency to fund Watts’ salary and benefits, along with event pay and overtime for two years.

“It was something we felt was the right thing to do,” Vanatta said of bringing a second school police officer into the district to work in its four schools alongside him.

Watts, who served in the Army’s mechanized infantry for four years followed by four years in the Army Reserve, received his associate degree in specialized technology from Harrisburg-based National Education Center while working as a hotel manager.

He graduated from the Pennsylvania State Police Academy in 1995 and has worked in several locations for that agency. He focused on DUI and drug enforcement and worked his way up to become a criminal investigator, handling everything from armed robberies to child abuse cases.

In 2007, he became a patrol supervisor with state police, a position he held until he retired in May 2015.

During his time with state police, Watts received multiple accommodations, one for his work on an armed robbery case and another for the coordinated rescue of an 80-year-old woman who had gotten lost near her home.

Watts worked for state police on Sept. 11, 2001, when jetliners commandeered by terrorists hit the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington. Another plane came down in Pennsylvania, and Watts was part of a state police convoy that worked the outer perimeter of the crash site in Shanksville for four days.

One of the group’s jobs was to communicate with families who had lost loved ones in the Shanksville crash, Watts said.

He snapped a picture of the site that’s different from what most people saw. Mixed in with the beauty of the hillside was the gaping hole the plane left, and flags lining the area marking biohazards and other things found from the crash.

For him, even in a situation like that, “there’s no fear,” he said. “My mindset is to protect and serve.”

In 2013, Watts was named Trooper of the Year for his role in a child abduction that ended at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

That story impressed Quaker Valley Middle School Principal Anthony Mooney, who called Watts “personable, approachable and friendly.”

“You can tell already that he’s going to be a wonderful resource, but also someone the kids look up to,” Mooney said.

After retiring from state police, Watts, who says he “truly loves being a police officer” and helping others, quickly became bored at home.

After five months, he took a job in the Avella Area School District as its only school police officer. He worked there until joining Quaker Valley.

At Avella, the “community adopted me” as one of their own, he said. There, he worked to implement a new truancy policy, investigated criminal incidents and taught classes.

He’s excited about the opportunity to come to Quaker Valley, where he also will teach classes about everything from online safety to vaping.

“You are there to help raise them and guide them,” Watts said of the kids. He will do “anything and everything” to keep the kids safe.

While his office is in the middle school, Watts will be a presence in all the buildings. He plans to get to know every student in the district.

“I want everyone to see me walking through the halls,” he said. “I’m going to be fist bumping with every single one of them.”