Chapel Hill News

SRO Rex Gibson has been enforcer, mentor, friend

Lauren Stapleton, Rex Gibson, Evon Barnes celebrate Gibson’s retirement as East Chapel Hill High school resource officer this fall.
Lauren Stapleton, Rex Gibson, Evon Barnes celebrate Gibson’s retirement as East Chapel Hill High school resource officer this fall. courtesy of Ryan Pecaut

Retirement is something East Chapel Hill High School Resource Officer Rex Gibson never knew he would necessarily live to see.

Gibson was diagnosed with cancer in 1991.

“I had a parotid tumor protruding out of my neck,” he said. “So, I had the biopsy and it came back malignant.”

Gibson underwent 35 radiation treatments over seven weeks in 1991 and 1992 and continued follow-up appointments with the surgeon for the next 20 years.

“I was declared cancer free in 2010,” he said. “Retirement is a closing chapter in my life that I never knew I would reach. For my family, it is a celebration of life!”

Gibson is a family man with a wife and two grown children, but for the past 17 years his second family has been the students and staff at East Chapel Hill High.

He retired from the Chapel Hill Police Department on Oct. 31 after 29 and a half years of service.

At East he had worked from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., often returning two or three times a week to cover games until 8:30 or 9 p.m.

“He optimizes what an SRO is supposed to be,” said Principal Eileen Tully. “I just can’t say enough wonderful things about him. I don’t think there has been a single athletic event that he has missed.

“There is no part of this school that Rex hasn’t touched.”

Gibson says he knew he wanted to be in law enforcement since he was 12 years old. In 1984 he graduated from N.C. Central University and went straight to the Chapel Hill Police Academy. He was hired by Duke University Police and after a year was recruited to Chapel Hill.

He was a public safety officer at the time, serving as police officer, firefighter and emergency technician at the same time.

“We carried fire gear in the trunk and – if I got a fire call – I would take off my weapon and bullet-proof vest and dress out in fire gear,” Gibson said. “If it was a medical emergency, we would do CPR, splints, tourniquets, vitals etc … until the EMTs came.”

He worked foot patrol, was one of the first bike patrol officers downtown and even SWAT, but in 1996 Gibson filled in for another SRO at Chapel Hill High School and got to know Assistant Principal Dave Thaden.

After Thaden became principal of East Chapel Hill High, Gibson went to work there in 1998.

“I wanted to help people and be a problem solver,” he said. “I have spent more time inside this school then on the street.’

Being an SRO

Gibson said being an SRO is really three positions: police officer, mentor and teacher.

“You build a relationship with the staff, the kids and their parents. That is paramount – you must be approachable,” Gibson said.

Even when students are in crisis Gibson maintained that mentor role.

“When they made a mistake, my role was to be an advocate and encourage them to continue their education,” said Gibson. “It is hard to measure when it helps.”

In misdemeanor cases Gibson worked with the court and families to help give the students the option of community service and a clean record.

He has always been there to answer questions and talk when the students needed it, and several have gone on to be police officers themselves.

“In my tenure at the high school there are six students that are now in law enforcement,” said Gibson,” and that is why having a positive role model is so important.”

School shooting

In times of real trouble Gibson has also been there for the students.

In 2006, a 17-year-old student walked into the school after hours wearing a trench coat concealing a pistol grip shotgun, a small container of gasoline and a hunting knife.

He held a female sophomore and her civics teacher hostage for nearly an hour.

“He had them lock the door and told them to turn around and face the wall,” said Gibson. “The teacher would not comply. She kept talking to him and easing him until he finally just said he wanted to shoot his gun.”

Gibson said the teacher told the student that if he did fire his weapon Officer Gibson was going to come. He did fire twice at a window and then ran out of the room. Police found out later that he ran home and his mother took him to UNC Hospitals for a psychiatric evaluation.

Gibson was at a soccer game outside the school and heard the shots.

He radioed communicationsn and police quickly surrounded the campus.

Once they confirmed the student was at the hospital, police took the school off lock down.

“Everything turned out well that day, and nobody got hurt,” Gibson said. “The next day we had counselors there, and I made sure my presence was seen between every class and during lunch breaks.”

Security measures changed. All doors remain locked except for the main entrance that has a security camera. The school added more cameras and visitors must check in and have a pass or security card.

“But cameras don’t catch everything,” said Gibson. “We added a third security guard, and we were all more vigilant.”

Not leaving yet

Chapel Hill Police Officer Sergeant Nate Chambers has known Gibson for 10 years and had seen his impact on students firsthand.

“On the 29th, I was working with Gibson at the Waffle House on Franklin Street when a young man came up and was all excited,” said Chambers.

“A former student came out of a bar and said, ‘Oh my God it is you Officer Gibson,’ and repeatedly told all of us and Gibson that this man saved my life … he saved my life … told me to stay in school and saved my life.”

So how do you mentor so many students and then walk away into retirement. Well, although Gibson has big plans to ride his Yamaha with his bicycle group the Elite Cruzers and enjoy the family, the answer is you don’t fully leave.

“I am not going totally away. I have been hired as a substitute teacher all over the district and will also drive an activity bus for East,” Gibson said.

When not around the high school, Gibson will still have more time in his retirement to hit the road with his biker friends.

Retired Sargent Dennis Jordan is already making plans.

“Every year we bike to Daytona and Myrtle Beach for rallies in the spring,” Jordan said. “It is time to start making reservations. We are looking forward to him having more time with us.”

But whether he is a retired cop, grandpa or biker Gibson says he is a man that wears a lot of pink because he is also a cancer survivor.