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Junior Police Academy

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The Watertown Police Department invited the Junior Police Academy to a panel at WHS on February 2nd. Eight members of the community comprised the panel: Resource Officers Zack Buesser and Chris Donston from Watertown Public Schools, Chief of Police Joshua Bernegger, and Deputy Chief of Police Renee Dominguez. Along with Superintendent Dr. Villanueva, School Counselor Mrs. Robinson, Director of Community Engagement Lauren Pristo, and Kevin Pettit from Juvenal Probation. Senior, Josh Albarracin, the moderator, asked the panel questions about various topics within the school and community. 

Josh began the conversation on topics regarding the significance of Resource Officers in the town of Watertown, privacy rights in a school system, and how the WPD is enforcing laws equitably. Lastly, he asked about where the line between free speech and hate speech is drawn in a school system. 

Resource Officers Zack Buesser and Chris Donston discuss the significance of Resource Officers, or SROs, in the educational system. They are the school’s first line of defense, but interacting and forming relationships with parents and students is their most significant responsibility. They are responsible for building trust so kids feel comfortable confiding in SROs. Resource Officer Chris Donston from Swift Middle School, shares that one of the most rewarding feelings in his job is to watch all of the kids he once oversaw grow into mature adults. The SROs then talk about the process of becoming a Resource Officer, sharing that it is a long and competitive process and that takes a lot of training. Audience member, Senior, Thomas McGowan chimes in and says “It takes a certain type of cop to even be an SRO and I believe that not everyone can be, you have to be able to interact well with the kids.” 

Preventing potential risks to the school and community is a requirement of the training. The panel discusses how they feel about students’ right to privacy on school property. According to Superintendent Dr. Villanueva, privacy laws and regulations change as soon as you cross our street and enter school property. According to Chief of Police, Joshua Bernegger, SROs are required to investigate any danger to the school, with or without the student’s consent. According to Zach Buesser, WHS resource officer, students’ right to complete privacy can be violated when they bring cars, backpacks, or lockers into school grounds due to others’ safety. 

The topic soon moved to how the WPD enforces laws equitably based on race, gender and sexual orientation. The chief of police shares that there have been many extreme precautions put in place to ensure that police personnel do not target a certain ethnicity or gender. They are expected to file a report if they have to stop or pull someone over. The police department conducts a traffic light statistic, which is utilized to examine each officer over the year. They do this to ensure that no one person is specifically targeted or singled out. In addition, all police must always have a body camera on and available so that they can review footage later if needed

In addition to privacy rules and restrictions changing, when one enters school property, the Watertown school system has free speech boundaries. According to Dr. Villanueva, there are stringent restrictions on free expression in the WHS education system, and such restrictions apply once on school property. It is unacceptable for anyone to discriminate through speech. They will face repercussions if they do. This can also apply to offensive or inappropriate language written on clothing items. The regulations alter after they re-enter the community. 

Thomas McGowan, a student present at the panel, felt that the discussion was instructive, “Everyone putting themselves forward demonstrates their pride in the school, along with the students showing up as well,” he continues, “I gathered today how the police officers protect our students and the safety of our school.” Another student seeing the panel, Lana Kolpa, says she was inspired by the police officers and intends to work as an SRO. 

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About the Contributor
Payton Howard, Program Manager
Payton Howard is a Senior at Watertown High School. She is very involved in her community and is currently a trainee for the Water Oak Pop Warner team. Payton puts a lot of effort into her academics, as it is important to her. Her favorite subject in school is English and loves to write poetry, and essays, and analyze different literary texts. Payton is also currently a member of the National Honor Society.   Payton has a high interest in all aspects of Journalism. She loves how beneficial this Publishing class is for her. She had decided to expand her interests and is now on the Yearbook Staff for the 2024 school year.  Payton has a passion for helping people any way she can hence why she wants to major in Occupational Therapy. Payton has been shadowing at Waterbury Hospital working with all different patients with occupational needs which sparked her interest even more. She is eager to graduate and start the next chapter of her life in the Health Science world. 

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