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School officer has a big job

Police officer John Little’s office is surprisingly cozy, considering what he has to deal with on a daily basis.

Little is the School Resource Officer at Oak Harbor High School. For the last six years it has been his job to police the high school, but he does much more than that. He makes friends.

His tiny office, tucked in a corner of the counseling center, is filled with pig paraphernalia of all sorts, many many photos of students he has befriended over the years, a large jar of suckers, and five large posters shaped like suckers, signed by every student who has come into his office in the last five years. There must be close to a thousand names scrawled on the construction paper suckers.

The pigs, the photos, the posters, and most of all the suckers, serve to break the ice, and get students to feel comfortable talking to a police officer in full uniform. The strategy has worked very well.

“You name it, they talk to me about it,” Little said. “Sometimes I can’t believe what they tell me.”

Drug use, drunken parties, problems with parents and girlfriends or boyfriends, students spill it all, confident that their secrets are safe with this officer of the law.

“My job is to bridge the gap between the police and youth, so they see police in a more positive way,” Little said. “They see the uniform, but they don’t see the uniform.”

Little only reports what he is told if the activity endangers the student or others.

It’s lunchtime, and a steady stream of candy mooching students file in, fish out their favorite “Blow Pop” sucker, exchange a few words with Little, then go on their way. Others have real business with the officer.

One girl fills out a form to report her wallet has been lost, or possibly stolen. Little offers her his condolences, and tells her to go to the ASB office to see if she can get another student ID card.

Another girl tells him she is still being harassed by a classmate, and they talk about what her options are.

Senior Jeremy Deater has been a regular in Little’s office, and not just for social visits.

“I had a really short temper,” Deater said, slurping a pink iced drink. “But I wised up. Officer Little pointed me in the right direction.”

That direction now includes looking toward college, and a degree in criminal law.

“It’s nice to see them grow up,” Little said.

Little has seen a lot in his time at the high school. The worst incident he can recall was a fight in which the victim ended up in Harborview Medical Center with a crushed eye socket and broken nose, requiring major surgery.

He said this year he has handled more than a dozen fights, up considerably from last year.

“It seems to go in spurts,” he said. He’s not sure what triggers these outbreaks, whether it’s overcrowding, stress, problems at home or something else.

Many incidents are handled at the school level, and don’t require his intervention, but this school year he has made three felony drug arrests for mushrooms, marijuana, ecstasy, and prescription drug abuse, as well as arrests for three assaults, two trespass complaints, one restraining order violation, two thefts, and one second-degree assault incident.

Little also patrols the halls and surrounding neighborhood, looking for students doing things they shouldn’t be doing.

The Resource Officer’s salary and benefits are split between the school district and the police department, with each paying $38,992. At nearly $80,000 a year, Little is at the top of the police department’s pay scale for patrol officers.

During the school district budget talks last summer, Schools Superintendent Rick Schulte suggested cutting the Resource Officer program, to save almost $40,000. School board members Vicki Harring and Gary Wallin were particularly vocal about keeping the program, and Little.

Oak Harbor High School Principal Dick Devlin feels the presence of a Resource Officer on campus has been very helpful in developing a positive attitude of students toward the police, having an officer on hand for legal advice and the occasional arrest, and for deterring crime.

“His presence is important,” Devlin said. “Generally, people who tend to do ill will stop and think before doing it in the presence of an officer.”

Interacting with thousands of students has taught Little one thing: “I don’t judge kids on appearances. I try to get to know them as individuals. I think that has helped them to get to know me as an individual too,” he added. “It’s taken a lot of time.”

After five years of establishing a bond of trust with high school students, Little will likely step down in June, as the Oak Harbor Police Department has a policy of rotating officers to different jobs.

Police Chief Steve Almon said Little has done a good job at developing a rapport with students, but that he intends to stick to the rotation policy.

“Five years is a pretty lenient policy,” Almon said.

Little will miss the students he sees daily, and no doubt they will miss him.

“I’d hate to go,” he said. “It’s fun most days.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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