Officer Hunt reflects on past 13 years as school liaison
In his 13 years as a school resource officer, Bemidji police officer Jon Hunt has met more than 5,000 sixth-graders from Bemidji Middle School and St. Philip's School.
Students know when they see the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, truck parked in front of their school, Hunt is there to serve, protect and listen. He is available to students every day of the school year and is on the streets every summer, duties that make his job as a law enforcement officer unique.
"My job is to be a resource for the schools and a liaison to the legal community, which includes law enforcement, probation, courts and anything along those lines," Hunt said.
Hunt said his job as a school resource officer has come a long way since the beginning. He went from teaching DARE in class a few periods a day to spending all day, every day in school.
"I was first told my job was to come in and teach kids about not doing drugs and then I'd walk out and be gone," Hunt said. "That's how it was. It became cumbersome."
Over time, however, Hunt said principals would stop by and ask him if he could sit down with a student who was having problems in school. Parents called to school asking to speak to him about their concerns.
"I started doing more 'guest services,'" Hunt said.
Hunt said years ago he was told he was there in school to be the students' friends, their buddy and reflect the DARE program in a positive light.
"They didn't want you to be the guy with consequences," Hunt said.
Hunt said now that he thinks back, not being more involved in schools was likely creating a wall between law enforcement officers and youth. Being in school now, he said, has allowed him to get to know the students and parents better.
"I'm in the sixth-grade classrooms, teaching them about what we see on the streets," Hunt said. "I can support what I say because I'm on the road in the summer, and I see it. I'm not just teaching from a book, I'm bringing in real life stories."
According to Hunt, he came to the middle school at the right time.
After starting to realize he could do more with the DARE program, Hunt went to his police chief and told him the need for an officer's presence at the middle school. But when the chief talked to school administrators, the school officials were leery of the idea because they thought the public might view the school as being "dangerous" and in need of extra supervision.
"They were worried about the negative," Hunt said. "But we did a proactive piece in the media to tell the public this would have a positive impact on the school."
In March 1999, the school agreed to take Hunt in as a fulltime school resource officer. Then, in April 1999, the Columbine school shooting tragedy occurred.
"That whole spring, suddenly, we were like 'How smart are we?'" Hunt said. "We did something to stop that from happening at our school."
Hunt said after that spring, people felt OK about police officers in school.
"Suddenly having cops in schools didn't seem so weird to people," he said.
For nine months out of the year, Hunt is in school. He has his own office, is connected to the police department computer system and he can check all of the school's security cameras. Once or twice a week Hunt said he stops into the Bemidji Police Department to check in with his supervisor. On days when there is no school, such as during parent-teacher conferences, Hunt said he works the road shift for the police department.
Today, Hunt said, he still hears some people talk of the middle school as a "disaster school." But to him, this is no longer the case. He said since he started working at the middle school he has 70 percent fewer cases he has had to handle.
"I remember working the streets and if a call came to the middle school you prayed you were the furthest officer away because you didn't have to go," Hunt said. "What people have to realize is there are 1,100 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders under one roof. That's a town bigger than Blackduck. You can't expect every one of them to get along."
Hunt said the tough issues middle school students deal with in school are a reflection on the issues community deals with.
"You are asking kids who don't understand it completely to deal with it the way we think it should be handled out there," Hunt said. "We need to take a step back and realize if we're going to put our kids in one building during a time when they are growing and changing, we can't expect things to be perfect."
BMS Principal Drew Hildenbrand echoed Hunt's remarks, stating, "Students come here, they get lunch, breakfast, a warm place, books and shirts, if they need it. Do we have 30 kids who may cause problems? Sure, but there are so many positives."
As a DARE officer, Hunt talks to sixth-graders about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. This year's program is new, he said. It's called "Keeping It Real."
"There is very little emphasis on specific drugs anymore," he said of the DARE program. "It really is all about decision-making and making good choices. It's actually been proven, tested and certified by the National Education Association."
Over the years, the DARE program has evolved, although its main message remains clear - Don't use drugs. When Hunt was asked, however, if the program keeps all kids off drugs, he answered, "No."
"What DARE does, more than anything, is create relationships between law enforcement and kids," Hunt said. "There are 1,100 kids who wouldn't know one cop in this town if I wasn't here."
Hildenbrand said when students have personal issues or concerns, oftentimes they will not want to talk to a principal or a teacher. They want to talk to Hunt.
"They feel comfortable with him because he has more a direct relationship with their home," Hildenbrand said. "He adds a directness and a safety for the kids because they know he is around all school year."
So, what has Hunt learned about the average sixth-grader in working with them for so long?
"I have a lot more empathy for sixth-graders and the situation they are in, as far as growing up in changing times," he said. "I've learned more about stepping back and looking at the whole picture instead of just the incident or action that occurred. They are not all the same."
Hunt's advice to students is this: "Get involved in positive things. Stop, think and make good decisions and choices. Think about your future."
To parents, Hunt said, "Get involved in your kids and stay involved. Ask questions. Go with your child to activities."
Hildenbrand added, "And monitor their cell phones and computers."
Technology has changed the way police officers handle situations in school, Hunt said. Bullying and harassment issues are now often directly related to social networking sites or home computer use.
"We have battles around town among kids that start a week earlier on the computer," Hunt said. "They meet somewhere to finish it off, and some have never even met who they are fighting with."
Hunt said he is concerned with the amount of time students spend on social networking sites instead of reading books or socially interacting with peers face-to-face.
Hunt and Hildenbrand agreed finding a hand-written note now feels like a thing of the past.
"It's all electronic now," Hunt said. "All of that stuff is floating electronically out there forever."
But with some of the challenges Hunt faces as a school resource officer, Hunt said he enjoys his job and would not give up working in the school.
"I get to see a lot of good," he said. "I get to do Family Fun Nights, sit with the kids at lunch and talk deer hunting or kick a ball around in the field. I am blessed I get to see the good going on out here."
"The first parking spot in our lot is the DARE truck," Hildenbrand added. "The kids know it is part of the school. They know Hunt is DARE, but DARE is bigger than Hunt. That is a part of the fabric of the school."