Bellevue school police officers’ work goes deeper than ever before

If you're going to get a tattoo, especially a large one, it has to be something with meaning.

If you’re going to get a tattoo, especially a large one, it has to be something with meaning.

That’s the advice school resource officer Jan Trizuto gives Sammamish High School junior Gabrielle Sheerin while chatting with her before the morning bell. When Sheerin asks Trizuto where and what kind of tattoos she has, she doesn’t even pause before launching into her body art and their meanings.

Walking back to her office, Trizuto runs into another student who reminds her that she had promised to bake cupcakes later that week. Before she joined the Bellevue Police Department and became a school resource officer, Trizuto was a pastry chef and small business owner. But when she lost her business and became a single mother, she decided to make a career change.

But the choice to become a police officer, and just how much she loves it, surprised even her.

“I wanted to be someone that my kids would look up to, a strong role model,” she said. “When I started in school resource officer school, I realized, ‘Oh my God, this is what I want to do.'”

The full scope of what a resource officer deals with surprised her as well. While many people associate school resource officers with preventing school shootings and violence, their work delves much deeper and further beyond campus than it ever has.

For Newport High School school resource officer Greg Mills — who is one of the department’s longest-serving school officers with 17 years on the job — the rise of the internet and social media has led to many changes in his work.

“The biggest change has been in smart phones, the whole internet world,” Mills said. “I think it’s added a lot of stress to students. The social media world takes a lot of time and attention.”

These days, there aren’t many fights on high school campuses themselves — Sammamish High School has seen four during the entire 2015-2016 school year. A good deal of what the officers deal with occurs on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other websites.

“The stuff that happens outside of campus really does affect students at school,” Mills said.

Even situations that wouldn’t normally turn combative can escalate once bystanders pull out their cameras and begin taking photos and videos, administators said. The day prior, a Sammamish High School student had been suspended for egging on two girls who had been arguing online and ended up fighting.

Students have also turned to the internet to help them access drugs and alcohol.

Earlier this school year, the Bellevue Police uncovered a ring of Sammamish High School students who were shoplifting alcohol and selling it to other students on Facebook. More recently, Mills discovered that a group of Newport seniors had ordered fake IDs from China online, likely to buy alcohol or marijuana, he estimates.

Over the last few years, Mills has seen a change in students’ attitudes toward marijuana.

“With the legalization of marijuana, a lot of students think it’s not a big deal now,” he said. “But they forget it’s still illegal if you’re under 18.”

Some students’ families smoke at home, while others use it secretively to self-soothe and deal with anxiety and depression.

The rates of depression and stress have been on the rise on the Eastside, and with it, resource officers become a key resource to check on kids and spot any warning signs.

Trizuto was walking through the center of Sammamish High School, a first-floor courtyard/atrium, when she looked up and saw a student suffering from behavioral problems and mental illness standing at the edge of the third-floor railing. Sensing something was wrong, she called up to him to come down and join her.

When he got to the first floor, he burst into tears and told her he had been planning on jumping. He heeded Trizuto’s calls, he told adults later, because he likes Trizuto and thinks she is kind.

“I call on [Trizuto] a lot to give not only the law enforcement perspective, but to speak from a mom’s perspective,” said Sammamish High School Assistant Principal Anecia Grigsby Gibbons. “It’s not like, ‘Here comes the law’ — Jan’s a person in uniform who really cares.”

Officers must walk a fine line between being a disciplinarian and an ally for students that school resource officers must walk.

While school resource officers are often reliant on students bringing them information about problems and crime starting on social media, they also reach out and teach classes, get involved with student projects and even give young drivers advice on dealing with their first speeding ticket.

Each resource officer has their own way of connecting to students — Mills is a quiet but pervasive presence on campus who has been know to help with A/V student projects, while Trizuto wanders through the halls chatting with students, at one point bringing a girl back to her office to make her a sandwich because she hadn’t had breakfast that morning.

“I like to tell them little things about me. It takes time to build trust,” Trizuto said.

But it has paid off. During her tenure at Sammamish, Trizuto has become a confidant for many students. One senior who disliked Trizuto when she first arrived now wants to be a resource officer and looks to her as a mentor. When a young female student was raped last year, Trizuto was the only person she would talk to.

For some, working as a school resource officer helps them discover personal talents or passions.

Having worked with several students who have been sexually assaulted, Trizuto bid Sammamish goodbye last month to join Bellevue Police’s sexual assault unit.

While the move is a natural fit for her skills, she said she will miss the students greatly. Even on one of the last days of the school year, she had yet to pack up her office and take down the letters and photos of past students that adorn her walls.

Overall, officers said they loved being able to see the impact they made on students’ lives. That’s one of the reasons why Mills has never left.

“I don’t feel like I have to arrest anyone to make an impact,” he said. “I feel really appreciated.”