Even with the 80 percent hearing loss he had as a child, Jamel Bradley still knew the names that kids called him – like “Dumbo.”
He remembers them making fun of his speech impairment, the “funny” way they looked at his ears and hearing aids and the mornings of crying to his mother about not wanting to go to school.
Now a senior deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, Bradley gets up and goes to school every day as a school resource officer.
“I had to go through a lot of things to be where I am,” Bradley, 38, said of his ability to connect with children. “The speech impairment, not being able to hear, people looking at you kind of funny and things like that – I think it becomes pretty natural.”
‘I didn’t want to go to school’
Originally from Beckley, W.Va., Bradley came down with an illness at 18 months old that shot his temperature up to 103 degrees for three days, he said. At the hospital, doctors packed Bradley with ice to get his temperature back to normal.
“When I left the hospital, they didn’t really think much of it,” he said. “My mom realized I wasn’t reacting to my name or loud bangs or doors slamming. She knew that was a problem.”
An audiologist determined Bradley had lost about 80 percent of his hearing, he said. The prolonged high fever was believed to be the cause.
Bradley wears a hearing aid in each ear, and over the years has regained some of his hearing. Still, the early years of school were difficult, particularly when it came to making friends.
“Nobody wanted to play with me much during that time,” he said. “I remember crying to my mom that I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t want to ride the bus or anything like that.”
Finding community in sports
Between the speech impediment, name-calling and difficulty making friends, Bradley said he wondered as a child how he fit in with the world.
He found his community in sports, first playing soccer at age 6. His older brother, who played basketball, later got Bradley interested in that sport.
“Sports was my thing that got me connected with the community,” he said. “Once they saw that my skills were good and I was really good at what I did, it didn’t take long for the social things to fall in place.”
In 1998, Bradley came to the University of South Carolina on a basketball scholarship. Over four years, he became the Gamecocks’ all-time leader in 3-point attempts at 670, and still holds the USC career and single-season records for 3-point field goals made.
In 2002, then-coach Dave Odom said he’d never worked closely with anyone who had a disability before coming to USC, and that Bradley’s attitude and willingness to cope made an impact on him.
“As a person who is well up in years and experience, I never get to the point where I don’t feel that I’m learning a lot,” Odom told The State newspaper in 2002. “As my body begins to deteriorate, as I’m finding it does, I feel almost embarrassed a bit to worry about whatever it is that is hurting me when you’ve got a guy like that.
“You know there are ways to overcome things and there are life’s lessons that are out there, and being able to do that is very, very important.”
‘They confide in him’
Sheriff Leon Lott, who is an avid Gamecocks basketball fan, had watched Bradley in games during his years at USC.
Lott said they met at a prayer breakfast just over 10 years ago and were seated at the same table. He recalled asking Bradley what kind of work he wanted to get into.
“He wanted to work with kids,” Lott said. “I said, ‘Good, you’ll make a great school resource officer.’ He said, ‘I never thought about being a cop.’ ”
Bradley told Lott about his hearing loss.
“I said, ‘If it don’t matter to you, it don’t matter to me,’ ” Lott said.
Bradley started his law enforcement career at Joseph Keels and Forest Lake elementary schools, but has been at Spring Valley for eight years. As the bell rings and the halls fill with more than 2,000 students making their way to lunch, some stop to talk with Bradley. Others exchange high-fives or fist bumps with him.
Most students call him “Deputy Bradley,” while some just know him as “Bradley.”
“Deputy Bradley's been a special addition for us because, not only is he a good SRO, but he also connects with our students regularly in a lot of different ways,” said Jim Childers, assistant principal at Spring Valley. “They confide in him, he develops great relationships with them.”
‘There’s gonna be peaks and valleys’
Bradley still wears a hearing aid in each ear, and said his hearing has improved to around the 60th percentile.
Rather than deaf or hearing impaired, he calls himself “hard of hearing.”
“I try to use my testimony to better understand (children’s behavior),” he said. “When I was growing up, I was probably going through some trauma or things of that nature, and I had people along the way that had to help me understand what I was going through and listen to whatever problems I may have encountered.”
That understanding is at the core of the sheriff’s department’s new policy on how to deal with students with disabilities or special needs. Deputies are now trained in how to recognize students with emotional, physical or intellectual disabilities, and in procedures for how to handle students with disabilities in times of crisis.
“It’s not about just arresting somebody and calling it a day – that’s the easiest thing to do,” Bradley said. “It’s a matter of listening to what they have to say and trying to figure out: Is this something that needs law enforcement attention or is this something that someone needs to be heard?”
In his role, Bradley said he also gets to mentor kids in Richland County and other school districts struggling with some of the same issues he encountered growing up.
“I feel like I can be some kind of mentor or help get these kids to understand that there’s gonna be some obstacles, there’s gonna be peaks and valleys,” he said. “It’s just a matter of staying the course and continuing to do what you really love.”