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Deputy finds new role as mentor, friend to kids in need

September 04, 2001|By JENNIFER RALTON-SMITH, Staff Writer

When county Sheriff's Office Deputy Rodney Arterberry took Ramon Casillas to play golf at Del Rio Country Club in Brawley on Tuesday evening, he was keeping a promise he made to the 12-year-old earlier in the summer.

Arterberry had promised the seventh-grader at Grace Smith Elementary School in Niland that they would play golf together if Ramon stayed on track academically through summer school.

In June Arterberry was appointed to Grace Smith as a school resource officer as part of a federal program designed to promote student safety and well-being by having a law enforcement officer on campus full time as part of the school administration.

The program is called Community Oriented Policing Services in Schools.

Arterberry is one of four Imperial County deputies detailed to schools throughout the Imperial Valley.

"COPS is more a philosophy than a program. It's community-oriented. Everybody is involved," Arterberry said.

"Yes, I'm a police officer, a deputy sheriff, but my job is not to arrest students. Rather, I want to get to know them and for them to get to know me."

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"When I started at the school back in June I don't think the kids understood why I was here. There was some reluctance on their part to talk with me. That's changing now."

Arterberry is the first law enforcement officer placed at Grace Smith.

"School resource officer" may be his official title, but Arterberry's role is much more. He's rapidly becoming a friend and mentor to many of the school's 260 students.

"My relationship with Ramon is typical of the relationship I want to foster with students. I met Ramon while he was attending summer school. We got to talking and discovered we had a mutual interest in golf and I took it from there. I told him if he continued to do well academically, I'd take him out to the golf course and we'd play a round of golf every month or so."

"I've been to his home and met his father and now Ramon's younger brother is showing an interest in golf. I'd like to think his brother's interest is because of my involvement with Ramon and his family."

Arterberry typically begins his school day by monitoring students as they arrive on campus.

"Many of our children eat breakfast at school and so they come to school early. That's a great time for me to get to know them," Arterberry said.

"I also spend time with them on the playground before the school bell rings. Niland has not had Little League or other organized sporting activities for the students for about four years now and I think that's the reason the kids did not engage in kickball or other mutually cooperative games on the playground. That's changing now and I'd like to think it's because of my being with them on the playground, encouraging them to work together to have fun."

Arterberry stressed his job encompasses a lot of different areas.

"The COPS philosophy is one of networking with other agencies in order to help our students in all aspects of their lives," he said. "If I visit a student at his or her home and can identify a need they have in their home environment, I'll refer them to the appropriate agency.

"Education is a marriage between the child, the teacher, the parents, the school and the community at large. Everybody has to work together for the child to succeed."

Grace Smith has grades kindergarten through eighth and serves a community not without problems, both economic and social. Unemployment is especially high and some 20 percent of students live in abandoned cars or makeshift shacks in an area known as "the Slabs" or "Slab City," according to statistics provided by the Sheriff's Office.

Doug Kline, Grace Smith principal, said truancy has been a big problem in the past.

"I think he's (Arterberry) going to bring a presence to the school that we mean business …. that we have the authority at the school now and we're encouraging our students to attend on a regular basis," said Kline. "Attendance is really crucial. You can't teach the kids if they're not there."

Kline said with a small staff and limited resources, it had been difficult to enforce full attendance by all students. He noted there were also problems with teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse and some gang activity in the area.

Arterberry, also a Brawley Union High School District trustee, will be responsible for introducing strategies to combat the influences of youth gangs within the community and will work with students by providing a positive role model through his involvement with students on and off campus.

Ramon was positive about his interaction with Arterberry.

"He loves the same sport I do," Ramon said. "I knew how to play golf a bit but I wasn't real good. Now he's teaching me and I'm better at it."

Ramon said he liked the idea of having the officer at school because, "Now kids won't get in fights. They'll listen to him."

He added his parents "really like the idea of the deputy being at my school. They like it because now I won't get involved in drugs and stuff like that."

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