The next time you spot a police car parked outside of Santa Fe High School, don't jump to the conclusion that something is amiss on campus. It may be Officer Nicola Butler's car.
Butler, who has been an officer with the Santa Fe Police Department for more than eight years, visits the school for lunch every other week to talk with students.
"It's real simple — it's so these kids can get to know a cop without getting busted," he explained during a recent interview at the school. "The idea is that they get to understand that a cop is a human being."
Teen members of the Mayor's Youth Advisory Board proposed this idea to Santa Fe Public Schools' Board of Education early this year. Butler said he began visiting the private Santa Fe Preparatory School last year as part of the program. In January, he started at Santa Fe High.
His usual practice is to approach a table, ask the kids if he can join them for lunch, and then engage them in conversation.
"It's not my job to judge them," he said, emphasizing that looks can be deceiving and you shouldn't jump to conclusions about a student's character based on his or her appearance. He accepts that teens will be teens, but urges them to consider modifying their behavior on school property.
For example, if he comes across a teen who acknowledges he was in an on-campus fight, Butler will point out that the school has security cameras and guards everywhere and that it's unlikely that the youth will avoid courting disciplinary trouble again should he end up in another clash.
He'll take questions about police policy and procedures, but he can't and won't give them legal advice beyond, "Hire a lawyer."
Last week, two students at different tables asked Butler the same question: Had he ever fired his gun in the line of duty?
"No," he said. "But I've had to point it at someone."
Butler doesn't force his lunch companions to talk with him, but he tries to find common ground by discussing topics including Teen Court (where Butler also works), sports, pop culture and breaking the law.
When he sat down at a table featuring mostly female students, they all gave him a bemused look that seemed to say, "What the hell are you doing here?" One of the girls said she found his presence "sketchy," but Butler managed to get some of the kids to talk with him.
One male student didn't want to talk with Butler at all and kept averting his eyes. Later, the officer was philosophical about the silent treatment.
"Maybe I'll run into him the week after next and he will want to talk," he said.
Butler was amused after one male teen saw Butler's badge and then did an immediate U-turn away from the officer.
Other male teens did talk with Butler about life at school, their experiences with the law (one kid, caught for shoplifting, seemed open to Butler's advice to cut that nonsense out), and the latest cellphone gadgetry.
Adrian Salazar, a sophomore at the school who serves on the Mayor's Youth Advisory Board, said more students are noticing Butler on campus during this pilot semester. Ideally, Salazar said, the program will demonstrate that "police officers are people too, and they are not always there to bust you."
Butler has two sons who attend public schools in Santa Fe. Both he and the program's organizers would like to see the project expand into all the city's high schools next year. (Another officer visits Capital High School, Butler and Salazar said.)
"Kids shouldn't generalize about cops, and cops shouldn't generalize about kids," Butler said.
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or email@example.com.
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