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Peacekeeper

Glendale Campus Police Officer On Guard for Signs of Trouble

October 29, 1996|ANGIE CHUANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GLENDALE — Tears well up in the 15-year-old runaway's sullen eyes as her black-painted fingernails nervously pick at a nose stud embedded in red, swollen flesh. She crosses her arms resolutely and shoots a death-glare across the cramped room at Glendale Police Officer Marilyn Cisneros.

The girl may be a typical runaway, but Cisneros is no typical officer. She knows the girl's mother, who reported her missing the day before. She knows who the girl's friends are. And she knows that the girl and her mother are not getting along.

"That's a new nose ring, isn't it? Did you and your mom fight about that? Are things OK at home? Why don't you want to go home? I know your mom and she's a nice person. She doesn't deserve this."

Cisneros knows these things because she works out of an office at Glendale's Hoover High, not the police station or a patrol car. She wears a department-issued polo shirt and jeans instead of a uniform.

She is a school "resource officer," one of hundreds of officers nationwide assigned by police departments to work full time at neighborhood schools. The Glendale Police Department's program, created in 1968, is one of California's oldest.

To watch Cisneros is to appreciate why such officers are viewed as crucial in keeping a fragile peace on ever-more-volatile campuses.

She has a complex role of both enforcer and counselor, authority and friend. She banters with laughing students and moments later faces down a would-be brawler with her athletic 5-foot-10 frame and stern words. A youthful 31 in sneakers and Ray-Ban sunglasses, she blends in, but her gun is always visible.

For 15 minutes this morning, Cisneros has questioned the uncooperative runaway, receiving nothing but glares. Now the officer sighs and gets up out of her chair. She is convinced that the girl, who keeps several changes of clothing in her backpack, will run away before her mother arrives at school. She decides to detain her at the station.

"Stand up. Put your hands on your head," she says. Within minutes, the girl is handcuffed, searched and marched to the front of the school and into a police car.

Cisneros goes back to her rounds on campus, catching numerous students littering, and checking the girls' restrooms for furtive smokers. Later in the day, she tries to persuade a badly bruised boy to identify the gang members who had beaten him with sticks.

She is looking for small signs of trouble. What street cops might dismiss as a minor incident--a running away, a fistfight--can be enough to disrupt learning, create another high school dropout, or lead to a fatal encounter outside the gates.

"I just want these kids to stay in school," Cisneros says. "And they won't if they don't feel safe here, or if they think nobody cares what they do."

More than half of Los Angeles County's 81 school districts have some sort of police presence on high school and junior high campuses, says Bill Ybarra, consultant for the Los Angeles County Office of Education's Safe School Center.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has had its own school police force for nearly three decades, but most smaller districts have to depend on the resources of their community police departments.

Like so many other cities statewide, Glendale's high school enrollments have swelled well above capacity, leaving the Police Department scrambling for ways to beef up campus police presence within its budget. When Glendale Police Chief James Anthony gets his share of new state funds allocated for local law enforcement, he may add a second resource officer to each of Glendale's two campuses.

Ben Mihm, Glendale High's resource officer, says the racial tensions at his school--mainly between Armenian Americans and Latinos--create a level of hostility that is impossible for one person to handle.

"There are times when there are two or three fights or situations breaking out on opposite sides of the campus. I'm like the lone soldier trying to put out all these spot fires," Mihm says.

Sgt. Rick Young, a former Glendale school resource officer, stresses the preventive value of having police in the schools.

"If I find a 14-year-old kid who is using drugs, how is he paying for it? Well, one of these kids was responsible for 150 car burglaries. The way I see it, if we intervene, that's one less major part of crime. Otherwise, he would move on to robbing stores, and then [more] violent crimes."

At the end of a long workday at Hoover High, Cisneros drives her unmarked Crown Victoria down a busy Glendale street. Her day concluded with the arrest of the gang member who had beaten the boy with sticks. Cisneros pulled him out of sixth period to make the arrest. "I can't believe he was actually in class," she muses.

She pulls up to a stoplight. A car blaring loud music pulls up and a high school boy with slicked-back hair grins and waves his hands wildly at her. Cisneros smiles, but points at him and gives him a warning look, and turns into the station.

"I have a love-hate relationship with these kids. I arrested some of them when I was doing [gang] task force and a lot of them are still hanging around me at school because they like the attention. The kids aren't that bad, really. They're just being kids."

Cisneros harbors no illusions about what happens after the last bell rings. Peer pressure, gangs and troubled home lives can undermine the best of her efforts.

Now, as she heads home, a testament to such complexities lies half a block from the police station, out of her view: The runaway she detained earlier that day stands with her mother at the crosswalk, a stony silence between them as they look in opposite directions.

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