Many teenagers look at adults as if they come from another planet, and cops as if they come from another galaxy. Despite that, Police Officer John Antonio seems to be connecting with the student body at Petaluma High School as the newly assigned Student Resource Officer.

"On my first day I walked past some kids and overheard them asking each other what a cop was doing on campus," said Antonio as he sat in his office in the front of the school. "But the kids seem to be getting more comfortable with me."

After budget woes forced the city to remove the three full-time student officers from Petaluma City Schools campuses four years ago, district administrators lobbied to have the officers reinstated. Though no new funding for the position came available, Police Chief Patrick Williams — who took over the department in August — made it a priority to bring these positions back as part of a new community-oriented policing program he is implementing.

Antonio, formerly a Student Resource Officer at both of Petaluma's junior high schools, is the first of those three officers to be reinstated. The department is hoping to bring back the other two positions during the next few years' budget cycles. Antonio's reinstatement comes at a timely moment, when school security is on many people's minds after the recent, tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

"It's ironic that this position was in the works prior to the shooting in Connecticut," said Petaluma High School Principal David Stirrat. "I think you're going to see a national move towards having more connection between schools and local police departments. The benefit to the community is just too huge to ignore."

For the Police Department's patrol unit, Antonio's full-time post at the school means one less officer on the street. But Antonio pointed out that having a contact in the school is a valuable tool for the department. "It actually cuts down on response time for the rest of patrol because answering calls to schools is very time-consuming," he said. "It also gives the other officers a point person to work with if students from my school are involved in incidents outside school hours."

Antonio said that two Petaluma High School students were involved in one such incident, an altercation over the weekend. The responding officer alerted Antonio to the situation, who made sure the it did not escalate when the students got back to school on Monday. Because of this added benefit to the community, Antonio said the department's patrol team readily agreed to pick up his old duties when he assumed his new post.

On campus, despite wearing a full patrol uniform complete with a service firearm, handcuffs and police radio, Antonio is being accepted by both the faculty and students just three weeks into his new assignment. His ability to relate to teens seems to be giving him credibility among the student body.

In his spare time, Antonio is the head football coach at Piner High School. He joked that when Piner and Petaluma meet for league play during the season, he's going to have to call in sick in order to avoid having to take sides. But in reality, his connection to high school sports has already caused Petaluma's athletes to drop by his office to chat.

Antonio also appears focused and dedicated to the job. Though the position calls for the Police Department's typical 4-day, 10-hour-day work week, Antonio chose to alter his hours to coincide with the school's, working five days a week to be available during school hours.

Most of Antonio's day is spent patrolling the school grounds, making sure students are going to class and not violating rules about leaving campus in the middle of the day. He also monitors the high-traffic area to keep it safe for pedestrians. Already, people in the neighborhood are seeing a difference.

"I see him almost everyday and it's just been wonderful," said local resident Laura Patterson. "Things have calmed down by 75 percent in my estimation. I walk my dogs here every day and I can see such a huge change since he arrived. Everyone feels much more secure now."

Antonio also handles any escalating problems among the students, including truancy, or excessive absence from school. He said it has been an eye-opening experience to work on the truancy board. "You really get to know these kids and understand what they are going through — things that I never had to go through when I was their age," he said.

One of the ways Antonio handles the changing teenage landscape is by staying tuned to social media, which he says is the biggest difference now, compared to when he did the job four years ago. "Facebook has blown up, which means keeping an eye out for threats and bullying," Antonio said.

While the overall sentiment towards the return of the Student Resource Officer has been positive, Stirrat said that a couple parents did raise concerns about Antonio's role on campus, which Stirrat credited to a lack of outreach to parents.

"The position came about so quickly," said Stirrat. "Once John (Antonio) has had a chance to get situated, we'll hold a public meeting to introduce him to the student body and their parents, and answer any questions."

Stirrat said the meeting would most likely take place in February.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)