When the bell rings, they calmly make their way to class, passing by her as they go from one building to another. One student even stops long enough to greet her with a “Good morning, officer.”
Officer Figueroa said it's about being a presence at the school to help keep everyone safe.
The Tyler native, who works as a school resource officer, was hired in July and is the only female officer in the Whitehouse Police Department. She represents a growing trend of females entering the profession.
Michael Ferguson, deputy director of the East Texas Police Academy, said women consistently are in basic academies, and an estimated four or five women were going through as of October.
The number of women is “steadily getting better. We're very proud of the fact that it's becoming such a good profession. It used to be people didn't want to get into it because it was seen as male only,” he said.
Ferguson attributed the increase in women officers to the fact that gender equality became more accepted, and people now see role models on TV for female officers.
As far as women going to a larger department versus a smaller department, he believes gender is irrelevant and that both have their benefits.
Regardless of what department an officer goes to, gender shouldn't be a factor for women who want to enter the profession, Ferguson said.
“In my opinion, this is the greatest career you can have. You get to give back to the community. You still get to make a difference in the world,” he said.
Female officers stumbled upon that career in different ways.
At first, Figueroa wanted to be a paralegal. However, she was sponsored through the police academy and became an officer.
Some female students “won't go to a male and say 'I've been sexually assaulted' or 'I'm having a problem,'” he said. “They're more apt to go to a female officer and talk to her.”
He said not having a female officer was also an issue in other situations. For instance, he said when a female needed to be patted down, it was difficult because the department had to call another entity, such as the Smith County Sheriff's Office, to come in, and they weren't always available.
Officer Figueroa said being a woman is a concern because it can be a little more challenging to be taken seriously. But she said it can be done, and she's enjoyed Whitehouse.
“I haven't really encountered anyone not respecting me because I'm a female…” she said. “I did train in the field and patrol, (and) I (didn't) encounter anyone being angry or hard to handle. Everyone's been welcome actually to the idea of a female working in Whitehouse.”
Officer Debra Daily, the only female officer in the Troup Police Department, said being in the Army National Guard convinced her to go into law enforcement.
“I'd wanted to do it for a long time, but I, just about three years ago, joined the Army National Guard, and that's what made me do it. (It was) appealing. You get to help other people,” she said.
In Troup, officers do the hiring. Chief Pat Hendrix said 54 candidates applied for the position that eventually went to Daily, who stood out because of her military experience.
“Over half our department is ex-military, which means they have discipline, stability (and) maturity,” he said. “She's still a rookie, but she just made probation and is doing a good job.”
Overall, Daily said she wasn't concerned about being a woman in the profession.
“We're pretty close here,” she said. “There (are) not a lot of us, (and) we all have each other's backs. If there's a problem, we can go to anyone in the department. There's not a lot of bickering and fighting. It's like a big family.”
She said she also noticed that children are more apt to speak with her than some male officers.
She said when several girls in high school have asked her about being a female officer, she tells them to, “Go for it.”
“It's a great job. It's a great experience. It's just going to make them stronger,” she said.
Jacksonville patrol officer Amanda Lewis worked as a dispatcher before becoming an officer. After 10 years as a dispatcher, she said she realized the potential of the officer position.
“I could effect change and put a positive impact on my community,” she said via email. “I would have the power to be someone's voice when they thought they could not speak after being in a neglected or abusive situation.
“I could give someone just a bit of hope to hold onto when they felt like giving up on looking for help. I was the public's lifeline for so many years, just behind the glass. I came out to the streets because I am a servant of the Lord and this is what He has called me to do.”
As far as being a female on the force, she said she works with men that she respects and adores, and is treated “just as one of the guys” without any special treatment.
“It took us time to gain each other's trust and respect. Out on the streets, all you have is each other. They all know I will always have their backs, and trust me so at the end of the day we can all go home to our families,” Lewis said via email. “I have learned so much from observing them over the past year and about myself too. I have evolved, and taken my place in this department. I think we all have something special we bring to the table, which makes us a great team.”
Female officers in the Tyler Police Department shared the same sentiments as those in smaller departments.
Community Response Officer Toska Graham, who has been with the department four years, said while working at the Children's Advocacy Center of Smith County, she met a lot of police officers, who convinced her to apply with Tyler police.
She said she's sure the fact that she would be a woman in the field crossed her mind, but detectives were extremely polite and encouraged her to go into the field.
“It didn't seem like anything that would be a detriment or hindrance to me,” she said.
Since coming on, she said she doesn't think there's any big difference between being a male or female on the force.
“I don't feel like I don't fit in or that there's any kind of segregation,” she said. “I just feel like I'm part of the group.”
As an officer doing educational and child fingerprinting programs, she said there are male and female officers who work great with children, and everybody tries to capitalize on their strengths.
Tyler Police Department spokesman Don Martin added, “I think it is an advantage that, especially the young school children, associate with all of the above. In other words, they're going to see a female officer, and a little girl may say 'Well, I want to do that too one day…' They identify with the female officer versus the male officers or it could be vice versa, so it's a compliment of all. When we're out dealing with them, they're going to see what they like or don't like, and that's what gets them interested in law enforcement.”
Assistant Tyler Police Chief Diannia Jackson, a 28-year veteran of the department, started as a dispatcher and moved up the ranks.
Working in dispatch, she said she interacted a lot with police officers, and that helped lead her to further her career.
She said she too wasn't concerned about being a female in the profession, which may be because she knew it wouldn't be an issue being female.
“There's not really a distinction between saying male and female that you're treated differently, especially here. We're just officers. We train the same, and where one has a weakness, the other one may be stronger in that area and be able to help out,” Jackson said.
She said female officers will sometimes run into conflicts with alleged offenders, but that happens to male and female officers. She said on patrol, residents who are rude will be rude no matter the gender.
“All of our females do an outstanding job here and work hand in hand with our male officers,” she said. “We're just officers, and we do the best we can to protect the citizens of Tyler.”
She added, “You can look at my career and what all I have been blessed to do here and see that there's not a glass ceiling for females in this profession. There (are) a lot of opportunities, a lot of things available. So if you're female, if you're male and want to get into the police department, it would be a good career for anyone who's interested in being a law enforcement officer.”