BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — Under American and police flags blowing in the wind Friday, Sullivan County officials paid tribute to Sgt. Steve Hinkle by accepting 100 donated bulletproof backpack inserts for “higher needs” students.

The weather in Blountville outside the Sheriff’s Office during the news conference was a stark contrast to the daylong rain on Feb. 23, when Hinkle was shot in the line of duty. He died three days later, but his memory has lived on through tributes to him and the thousands of letters, certificates, medals and more that have been sent to the Sheriff’s Office for his family from people across the U.S. and Canada.

The Sheriff’s Office is planning to raise money to send Hinkle’s family to Washington, D.C., next May during National Police Week so they can see his name unveiled on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, according to Sheriff Jeff Cassidy.

The 33-year Sheriff’s Office veteran, who spent several years as a school resource officer at Sullivan East High then at Sullivan Central High, was known for always having a mug of coffee and a smile on his face. Since his death, he has been described over and over as a humble, kind, calm and caring man with a good sense of humor.

Blue Blood Brotherhood, a national nonprofit organization, and ShotStop Ballistics, the Ohio-based manufacturer of the inserts, came together with the idea of making the donation, worth $30,000, to the county in honor of Hinkle because he was an SRO. During the month before her retirement, former Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski thought the inserts would best serve the students who have physical or developmental challenges since they may have trouble hiding or running during a potential active shooter situation.

It will be up to the school system to determine who gets the inserts out of the more than 100 students who qualify with “higher needs,” though how those decisions will be made hasn’t been determined.

There are two sizes to best fit backpacks of different sizes. One is shorter in length and weighs 3.5 pounds, and the other is longer and weighs 4.5 pounds. The inserts can withstand multiple rounds from handguns and rifles.

After the news conference, Skip Gavorski, with ShotStop Ballistics, showed a test insert to officers and others. It remained mostly intact after being shot with multiple rounds from a 9 mm handgun and .357-caliber rifle.

Despite the inserts’ hard texture, bullets remain lodged in them and won’t ricochet, he said.

“This generous donation will protect our children in Sullivan County, and this is just one more tool, one more safety measure we can have in the protection of our students,” Cassidy said. “We have our school resource officers in all of our schools, which I’m very happy to be a part of throughout the last year or so. ... Hinkle loved kids. He devoted his career to helping them, and I can’t think of a more fitting way to tribute for our fallen officer — our brother, Steve Hinkle.”

Fourteen SROs were hired, bringing the total to 18, which put one at every school campus. Most began in the spring before the 2018-19 school year ended.

This is the first venture of its kind for BBB and ShotStop. Tuesday Browning, co-founder of BBB, said she didn’t know the inserts existed until she discovered ShotStop.

“It’s an unfortunate thing that we do need,” she said. “But we got to brainstorming and thought, ‘Why don’t we try to donate some of these to the students?’ … I was able to attend Sgt. Hinkle’s ceremony after his death and was moved by everyone for the support that they gave so we decided that we wanted to do it in his memory since he was a former resource officer.”

Gavorski thanked the “men and women in blue” for the work they do every day. “That’s why we’re here in his honor,” he said. “It’s our honor to be here today, to do that. I wish I wasn’t here in this kind of circumstance for Sgt. Hinkle, but I hope this helps in some way, real way. … These backpack inserts are almost like a fire extinguisher. I pray to God that nobody ever has to use them, ever, but it’s just another safety tool.”

The school system’s new director, David Cox, whose first day was Aug. 1, gave his condolences to the community for the loss and said he’s grateful for the donation as well as the SROs’ dedication to keeping students safe.

“We look forward to many continuing partnerships and endeavors to keep our students safe,” Cox said.

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lspell@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2511 | Twitter: @BHC_Lurah | Facebook.com/lurah.lowery

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