Officer builds rapport with teens

FAIRMONT — Everyone has an opinion when it comes to police officers.

Stories of compassion and heroism compete with stories of corruption and abuses of power, providing a convoluted concoction of respect and fear.

Locally, the Fairmont Police Department is taking steps to provide positive interactions between youth and police, meant to result in long-lasting relationships, and to help dispel myths and rumors.

In September, Fairmont police officer Mike Beletti began working as a school resource officer at Fairmont High School. Just a few months later, he has seen positive results.

“When I started out here on day one, I was almost like a new student,” he said. “It was brand new to me. I was walking around in this school setting and a lot of kids were looking at me like, ‘What’s he doing here?’ It was just that kind of odd interaction, and not many kids wanted to come up and chat with me for any reason.

“Throughout the next couple of weeks, I spent a lot of time in the lunchroom. That’s where all the kids are in one area, and I got to see every student there. I started interacting with them at individual tables, and in the weeks following they started inviting me to come over to their tables to sit with them.”

Over time, Beletti’s presence would come to be missed if he was not able to visit with students.

“If I didn’t make it to lunch for a period, the next day I’d hear about it,” he said. “They didn’t need anything, they just wanted to talk. That was a good feeling.

“It was nice to get involved with the students here at school and make them feel comfortable to approach an officer in uniform. That’s a huge benefit in having an officer at the school and building — that rapport with the students.”

Beletti noted that other school resource officers have sometimes worn “softer” uniforms. He said being in full uniform helps students recognize officers as friendly and approachable should they ever need help outside of school. But the positive results don’t stop there.

“In another way, I’ve had interactions with current high school students out on the street in the past that may have sometimes been negative contacts,” he said. “It may have been a family dispute or something as simple as a traffic stop, and they may see that as negative, but our goal is to educate and promote safe driving habits.

“In coming here, I’ve seen some of those students and they were a little standoffish right away,” Beletti said. “They didn’t want to speak with me. But those same students now are giving me high-fives in the hallway and stopping in my office just to chat, and it’s good to see that turnaround. I’ve been here for three months and the changes I’ve seen are great.”

Part of Beletti’s job as an SRO is to meet with students who get violations outside of the school, such as those involving drugs, alcohol or crimes of violence.

“The police department is required by state statute to inform the school of those violations,” he said. “Then the school goes through their sanctions and they have look at the Minnesota State High School League, and if the student is involved in sports then there’s going to be some consequences for those actions that took place outside of school.

“A part of that process at the school level is that the SRO meets with the students and we go over what happened, what the motivators were behind the action, and how they can change that and make things better for the future.”

Beletti noted that type of meeting has nothing to do with the criminal side of things, but is done strictly at the school level. It is meant to help students learn about making good choices.

“I’ve seen a lot of positive interaction with students who may have had what they view as a negative interaction with an officer on the street,” he said. “They may have faced a consequence for a choice they made, but I’ve seen positive interactions here.”

One unfortunate aspect of high school life is that of bullying. Parents may feel an atmosphere of bullying was overlooked during their formative years, and may even feel that the situation still remains. Beletti notes that, for the most part, bullying is handled at the school level.

“The school does have a hard stance against bullying,” he said. “When the school receives that kind of information, they do their due diligence in looking at the allegation, speaking to all parties involved and try to come up with some resolution.

“In every school, there’s going to be some instances of bullying, and it’s really just about the steps we take to prevent that. Our dean of students, Traci Lardy, handles the majority of that side of things, speaking with students and their families about what’s going on. They also teach students about bullying, and how to take steps to prevent that.”

Beletti said that if bullying reaches a criminal level, such as threats or an assault, that is when the police and the SRO get involved.

“As far as the instruction, I do know that we target seventh- and eighth-graders,” he said. “Various teachers and staff here in the office go out in the classrooms and put on little sessions about whatever topic they want to cover. I’m doing a session in either January or February on consequences for actions, and Traci is putting on a bullying seminar at some point.”

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