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.