Jon Hunt is standing near the entrance of Bemidji Middle School on a recent January day as scores of kids stream inside the building after recess.
“Congratulations Mr. Hunt,” one says. A similar message is posted on the window to his office around the corner.
Hunt, a veteran of the Bemidji Police Department and the school resource officer at the middle school, was named Juvenile Officer of the Year by the Minnesota Juvenile Officers Association last month.
“It was very overwhelming,” Hunt said. “I’ve always been amazed and always been impressed by all the people who have come up and gotten these awards.”
“And I guess I wasn’t sure why I was put in that category,” the ever-modest Hunt added.
But colleagues say Hunt’s dedication to keeping the school safe while also getting to know kids makes him an asset to the school and the community.
“When you kind of become an institution in that position for 13, 14 years…that’s very powerful,” Bemidji Middle School Principal Drew Hildenbrand said.
‘Got the bug’
Despite a family with law enforcement ties, Hunt didn’t expect to make it his career.
He lived in St. Paul, where his grandfather was a detective lieutenant for the city’s police force, until the eighth grade. His family then moved north and he graduated from Bemidji High School.
Hunt was working on a degree in industrial technology at Bemidji State University when his brother-in-law, a state trooper, gave him the idea of becoming an officer.
“He said, ‘Gee John, you work well with people, you should think about law enforcement, it’s a good career,’” Hunt said.
After riding along with him on a few occasions, Hunt said, he “got the bug.” Soon after, he switched his major to criminal justice.
“I enjoyed the camaraderie between other law enforcement officers” and how they solve issues, Hunt said.
Hunt has been with the Bemidji Police Department since 1985, spending time on patrol before becoming the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer for the middle school. At the time, the position was more about teaching than enforcing laws, Hunt said.
“I started to see that this could become so much more than teaching D.A.R.E to sixth-graders,” Hunt said. He had some discussions with Robert Tell, the police chief at the time, and the school district about taking a more active role in the school.
Hunt said there was some worry, however, that putting a police officer in the school would create a perception it was unsafe.
But there was a generally positive response once he became the school’s first resource officer in early 1999, Hunt said. And then, just weeks later, the Columbine High School shooting occurred, bringing national attention to school safety.
“I think we saw that we needed to be more involved with kids in our community,” Hunt said. Soon after the shooting, an officer was put in Bemidji High School as well.
Today, Hunt still teaches a D.A.R.E. class at Bemidji Middle School and St. Philips School on top of his duties as a school resource officer at the middle school.
Just a few days after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., last December, Hunt stood by during the band and choir concert at the middle school.
“The kids and their parents actually feel a sense of safety and security when they know he’s present in the schools,” Hildenbrand said. He added that Hunt worked with the school to bring a new front office there, where visitors have to sign in.
Chrissy King, the home school liaison for Native American education at BMS, said Hunt takes time to get to know kids and earn their trust.
“A lot of our kids, especially the ones that come from harder homes, already have it burned into their head that (the police) aren’t going to help them,” King said. “Officer Hunt is somebody that turns that outlook around.”
Assistant Beltrami County Attorney Katie Nolting, who handles the juvenile cases in the county, echoed that sentiment.
“He does a fantastic job not only enforcing the laws, but he also gets to know these kids and helps them realize law enforcement aren’t bad people,” Nolting said.
With the recent award, Hunt has been receiving a lot of praise and congratulations. But he’s quick to acknowledge the work of others.
“There’s gotta be a lot of good people to work with in order to be successful,” Hunt said. “It isn’t just me.”