By Joe Tash
Officer John Ross drives a marked patrol car, carries a gun and badge, and has the power to make arrests and issue traffic citations. But as a San Diego Unified School District campus police officer, his job description varies from that of the typical beat cop. “We wear many hats, police officer, counselor, advice-giver,” said Ross, who was assigned to La Jolla High School at the start of the school year. “Our day-to-day job is different than regular SDPD (San Diego Police Department) officers.”
Whether he’s in front of the school keeping an eye on traffic during morning drop-off, walking the corridors as students move between classes, or serving as a visible presence at football and basketball games, no two days are the same, and Ross enjoys the variety.
La Jolla High School has been without a permanent campus officer for seven years. This school year, the city schools police department reorganized, moving some campus officers from middle schools to high schools. Every high school in the San Diego Unified School District now has an assigned campus officer, said Sgt. Troy Holliday.
Ross maintains an office at La Jolla High, but responds to calls at a “cluster” of nearby campuses, including Muirlands Middle School and La Jolla, Birdrock and Torrey Pines elementary schools.
The change means Ross can respond more quickly to calls at La Jolla schools than in the past, when an officer had to drive to La Jolla from another area, and fight traffic congestion along the way, said Holliday.
“We just saw the value in having someone assigned to the area permanently so we didn’t have to deal with the response-time lag,” said Holliday.
School officials were pleased to have Ross assigned to the La Jolla High campus, said vice principal Walter Fairley Jr.
“It’s an assistance to us. We don’t have to wait an inordinate amount of time for someone to get here,” he said. “Even though we don’t expect there to be major problems we can’t handle… it’s good to have that presence here, just in case.”
Ross, 41, is a California native who has worked for the San Diego schools police department for 12 years. Before coming to La Jolla High, he was assigned to San Diego and Madison high schools, and he also worked in the department’s patrol division for seven years.
Ross has a 12-year-old son, and said his job helps him as a parent because he learns about trends affecting schools before his son does. Conversely, his experience as a parent helps him work more effectively with the students.
When kids are giving him an attitude, he said, “you try to use your verbal judo to bring them around. If you go in too hard-charging, kids are going to shut down, no matter what age. If you treat them with a little respect, they’re going to give it back to you. Not just in information, but in personal contact.”
Ross said he maintains an open door policy, and is happy when both students and parents come in to chat or to share issues they are dealing with.
“You’re not always going to be in trouble when you come to talk to me,” he said.
Ross begins his day before school starts, arriving at the campus in his patrol car. He drives around the high school, Muirlands Middle School and La Jolla Elementary, watching the students arrive, and making sure traffic is flowing smoothly. He also checks local parks, looking for illegal activity, such as students smoking marijuana.
Later in the morning, he walks around the high school campus during passing period, meeting and chatting with students.
Several times throughout the day, he patrols around the campus in his cruiser, checking spots where truant students might congregate, such as a brushy area behind the fire station on Nautilus Avenue.
Unlike some campuses, La Jolla doesn’t have gang issues at or around its schools, Ross said, but he has dealt with such issues as truancy and drug use.
One current trend is the use of “spice,” a synthetic marijuana substitute that can cause lung damage and brain dysfunction, Ross said. The small canisters of the herb-like substance are typically sold at liquor stores and head shops, although Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in October making it illegal to sell the drug.
Another service Ross performs at La Jolla High is assisting when a team of security officers with a drug-sniffing dog makes a random classroom check. The school’s Parent Teacher Association provides funding for a private company, Interquest Detection Canines, to bring its drug-sniffing dogs on campus to check for contraband. Students are brought outside while the dogs check the classroom and backpacks.
When students are caught for minor offenses, ranging from loitering or truancy to possessing a small amount of marijuana or vandalism, they have the option of going through Teen Court, a program in which their peers act as jurors, judges and prosecutors and determine an appropriate penalty.
More serious offenses are sent to juvenile court, Ross said.
In most cases of school misbehavior, Ross said, talking to the students is vital to solving the problem.
“We dig a little deeper to find out why they’re acting the way they’re acting, and doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” he said.
• San Diego city high schools now have an officer assigned to every school. These officers are part of a separate city schools police department, not the San Diego Police Department.
• Each Poway district high school has an officer assigned part time, so several schools share one. The officers are either San Diego police or sheriff's deputies, depending whether the school is in the city of San Diego, Poway or the unincorporated area.
• The San Dieguito High School District used to contract for officers to be assigned to their schools, but they do not any longer. Now, officers from the Sheriff's Department, San Diego police or Carlsbad police respond to calls at their schools.