MILTON, Ga. — When Tom Washburn applied to become a school resource police officer in Milton, he did not expect his popularity with students to eventually lead to a career teaching a groundbreaking program in law and public safety.
“When I was a resource officer, I had many students eager to learn more about law and public safety,” Washburn said. “I had many asking about how to have a career.”
He eventually landed on the idea to create a program focused on the subject, and a year after approaching his boss, Shirley Collins, he got his wish when Collins was promoted to head Fulton County Schools Career and Technical Education. He was given two weeks to write the course and four weeks to gather the materials before the program would formally open at Centennial High School in 1997.
At the time, Georgia had only one high school-level law enforcement program, and nationwide, five states held a similar program. Washburn said he wanted his program to stand out and include legal studies and forensics.
His inaugural program was a hit with packed classes, and it soon gained national attention.
“The Law and Justice model I formed went on to be adopted in over a dozen states and hundreds of schools,” Washburn said. “I suddenly was the ‘expert,’ and folks from all over wanted to know what we were doing.”
Washburn taught classes at Milton and Cambridge High Schools as well and currently serves as treasurer of the Law and Public Safety Education Network in Milton.
One of Washburn’s first students, Neidra Wilson, said he inspired her, like many others, to pursue a career in the law and justice fields. She now works as a lawyer practicing asbestos litigation on behalf of plaintiffs at Weitz & Luxenberg in the Cherry Hill, N.J. office.
“When I met him, [Washburn] was still building his criminal justice program,” Wilson said. “He challenged our minds. He was protective of us like we were his own children. He constantly pushed us to be our best, but always celebrated us.”
But what made Washburn stand out for several students, who at times called him the “friendly giant,” Wilson said, is that he cared about his students lives, not just their academics.
“When I came to school the day after I learned my brother had passed away from pancreatic cancer, I had a quiz in his class which I wasn't ready for,” she said. “I simply wrote on the quiz my brother died and turned it in. He looked at me, pulled me to the side and asked why I was in school, that I didn't have to be here, but I told him I did. He comforted me at a time that I had a great loss. He fought for me when the school wanted to take my parking permit away since I did eventually miss some days of school for the funeral. Mr. Washburn is a teacher I talk about fondly because he's my favorite teacher.”
That empathy led Washburn and his wife Shanon to eventually adopt a student whose father had unexpectedly died following a divorce.
“Wash was a father figure to me,” said Evan Hecht. “Wash was for me the stable rock I could stand on throughout high school… Wash has been the father and husband I aspire to imitate. He’s dedicated to supporting his students through his time and wisdom. He’s a Godly man who loves the lord and lays down his life for his family and his students. He is the example of what a good man should be.”
Washburn helped Hecht attend a community college and welcomed him into his home when Hecht needed a temporary place to live before attending college full time. Hecht now works as a Planning Associate at TrueWealth in Atlanta after graduating from the University of Georgia in 2015.
Washburn said some of his favorite memories of his time as a teacher was helping students succeed in academics and in their personal lives. It’s an aspect he said that brought him back to school every day and that he will miss.
Now, Washburn said, it is simply time to retire and look out for his family.