La Habra’s School Resource Officers inspire and protect

By Elysse James

In a world in which bullying and school shooting threats are a common occurrence, school resource officers (SROs) are more important than ever.

SRO is a special assignment, and a tough one, navigating school policies, fights on campus, gangs, drugs, and more, but La Habra’s officers handle the tasks with grace.

La Habra Police School Resource Officers Nate Garcia, left, Nicholas Vazquez, and Justin Bender walk through La Habra High School.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

La Habra Police Department’s SROs Nate Garcia (middle and elementary schools), Nicholas Vazquez (Sonora High School), and Justin Bender (La Habra High School) say the relationships with students make the job meaningful.

“I’m dealing with a lot of kids, getting to know them, and interacting,” Vazquez said. “As they get to know me … they have a different perspective of what we do. They have more respect and in turn they help us with a lot of investigations.”

Students see the officers on campus all week, and they have a chance to get to know them.

Kids in elementary and middle school tend to have a more favorable view of police, Garcia said.

“They know we’re the good guys,” Garcia said. “They’ll come up and talk to me at lunch.”

La Habra Police School Resource Officer Justin Bender.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

These relationships have an added advantage during the summer, when school’s out and the officers are back on patrol. They often encounter students or parents they recognize.

“When we’re on calls, some people don’t want to talk to officers,” Garcia said. “But if they see us they feel more comfortable, so then they’ll come out and actually give us statements.”

The officers also help school administrators deal with bullying, which has changed with the rise of social media.

“It doesn’t stop when you go home,” Garcia said. “Now… it follows them home because the kids are now connected 24/7.”

La Habra Police School Resource Officers Justin Bender, left, Nicholas Vazquez, and Nate Garcia talk about their experiences working as school resource officers.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The students’ connection to social media can be helpful for police, though, because their inclination to post everything online provides useful evidence.

“Anytime anything happens, you’ve got 15 or 25 witnesses,” Garcia said. “Everybody saw it, everybody’s involved.”

Whenever an incident occurs on campus – a fight, for example – students are ready with their cell phone cameras, Vazquez added. Plus, officers can easily track down a victim, a suspect, or a witness because they are all on campus.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Garcia said. “On one hand, it helps you through your investigations because kids like to post everything and anything online. But then on the other hand, usually so much freedom and access to the internet ends up getting them in trouble.”

SROs also help schools prepare for potential life-threatening events, such as a shooting, by setting up lockdown drills and giving presentations to staff, students, and teachers. The SROs train the educators on what to look for, what to report, and how to report it, Bender said.

In today’s environment, threats of an active shooter always take top priority. Online threats, for example, require the officers to find the source of the threat, determine whether the threat is credible, visit students and parents that may be involved, and ensure the school remains safe.

“A lot of kids think it’s a joke. They see it on TV all the time now,” Garcia said. “Kids will say, ‘I’ll come and shoot you’, or they throw out the term ‘gun’ or ‘shoot’ a lot more than in the past.”

Recently, a non-credible threat that spread online led to several students staying home from school.  This particular threat was sent to schools nationwide and was attributed to a European internet group.

“Threats of a school shooting are kind of like the old, pulling the fire alarm to get out of class,” Bender added. “Kids want to get out of class or cancel school for the day and sometimes they say or spread a rumor about a possible shooting on campus.”

Many students say the officers are a comforting presence at school and make them feel safer.

“He’s always walking around campus, making sure everything’s flowing correctly and nobody’s doing anything bad,” said La Habra High senior Jonathan Macias of Bender.

La Habra Police School Resource Officers Nate Garcia, left, Nicholas Vazquez, and Justin Bender walk through La Habra High School.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Bender has a special relationship with La Habra High – he is a La Habra High graduate and had wanted to be a teacher at La Habra High School before choosing a career in law enforcement.

“I feel like I can make more of a difference as a police officer,” Bender said.

La Habra High senior Roger Palma said Bender was the catalyst for his academic improvement. Bender and two other officers visited Palma’s home when the teen had been missing school regularly.

“I was like, ‘Oh, man, what did I do?’ I thought I did something bad,” Palma said. “When Officer Bender started explaining he was here for more of a checkup…rather than to arrest me, it still made me kind of nervous. My family was very concerned.”

After that visit, Palma began attending class more consistently.

SROs are more than a police presence in schools — they are advisors and mentors to some and visible reminders to be good to others. They are always available to help both students and staff in any situation. It is not uncommon for an SRO to get a call or message after hours, after school has ended, from a staff member regarding a situation or a question. The SROs take their jobs seriously and welcome the challenges that come with the job; they strive to provide excellent customer service every day.