Sonoma County deputy (and an El Mo alum) joins the staff at the high school
El Molino High School has its first-ever school resource officer, Deputy Sheriff Mark Aldridge, whose job is to protect students and staff in an emergency, but he will spend most of his time as a friendly and positive presence on campus.
It’s déjà vu for Aldridge, 50, who graduated from El Molino High School 32 years ago and still cheers on the El Mo football team.
“It’s my alma mater. It’s where I grew up,” he said. “It’s a chance to give back to the community and to have an impact on the kids.”
Aldridge has been a deputy sheriff for 15 years, working in west county for the last 10. He lives in Forestville, the fifth generation of his family to do so.
“It’s always been our priority to make sure the campus is safe for students and staff. Having Mark here adds an extra piece of assurance,” El Molino principal Matt Dunkle said. “We’re truly fortunate to have someone like Mark, who knows our community well and knows our school well.”
Schools nationwide are increasingly seeking out school resource officers in the wake of recent mass shootings. It’s the fastest growing segment of law
enforcement, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. In the 2015-16 school year, some 42% of public schools nationwide hosted a school resource officer, and another 11% hosted a sworn law enforcement officer, according to the association’s website.
Most city schools in Sonoma County have school resource officers drawn from city police departments. Sonoma County deputies serve as school resource officers at Windsor High School, Sonoma Valley High School and now El Molino High School.
Aldridge’s hire was made possible through a three-year $760,000 grant from the California Department of Justice with money from Proposition 56, the tobacco tax. This same grant has also funded other school security measures: vape detectors and new security camera systems for all three high school campuses and campus supervisors at Analy and Laguna High Schools. (El Molino already has a campus supervisor.)
Aldridge’s first responsibility will be to protect the faculty, staff and students and keep them safe. But his day-to-day job will be building relationships with students, offering advice formally and informally and acting as a friendly, knowledgeable source of information and help for students and staff alike.
Aldridge said he won’t be out investigating students or looking for things like smoking or vaping. He does see himself offering classroom presentations and informal advice on such subjects as online presence, alcohol, teen driving and active shooter situations.
“I like to think I’m easy to talk to,” Aldridge said. “I have a fair amount of experience working patrol. I think I can make them feel comfortable and do what I can to help.”
He might even coach a football team, he said.
The school and Aldridge are still discussing exactly what the educational part of his job will entail.
“It’s all new to us,” Aldridge said.
That’s not the case at Analy High School, which has had a part-time school resource officer for five years. Sebastopol Police Officer Andy Bauer, also a native of Sonoma County, works one day a week rotating among the city’s schools. He does it on overtime, paid by the Sebastopol Police Department. The grant that’s funding Aldridge’s salary is also paying for some additional hours for Bauer at Analy.
Bauer said his job is to provide whatever the school might need from the police department, from student issues to managing traffic. He gives regular classroom presentations about drug and alcohol use, social media and on-site safety, including active shooter training.
“There’s definitely a little more awareness about that type of issue,” Bauer said, referring to school shootings. “But the day-to-day issues are providing staff and students with the help they need. Sometimes it’s just hanging out and getting to know the kids at the campus. We want them to know we’re here to help them if they need it.”
Is there any advice he would have for Aldridge?
“Take the time to listen. Sometimes kids just need to vent a little bit.”
Bauer and Aldridge agree that most of the concerns students have today — such as bullying and boyfriend-girlfriend issues — haven’t changed since they were in school, except for social media.
“Social media makes things worse,” Aldridge said. “It compounds the problem. Gossip spreads like wildfire instead of slowly like it used to.”
Aldridge said he wants to encourage kids to reach out and to make smart decisions.
“If you’re unsure, don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether it’s a hard life or a hard day,” he said. “Reach out and talk. If you guys see something happening, say something.”