El Molino High secures school resource officer through state grant

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When Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Aldridge stepped onto the El Molino High School campus in Forestville last week, things looked about the same as he remembered.

Most of the buildings were unchanged, even 32 years after graduating from the school, he said. Some of the murals that were up during his time as a student were also still there.

“It felt nice just coming back onto campus and having the opportunity to be here,” said Aldridge, a 12-year veteran with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

He’s expected to become a regular presence at the school over the next two years, during which Aldridge will work as the first-ever school resource officer for the campus. El Molino joins two other Sonoma County schools — Windsor High and Sonoma Valley High — that have turned to the Sheriff’s Office to staff their school resource officer programs, according to Sonoma County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Misti Wood.

While Aldridge will address crime that happens at the school, his primary role will be that of a mentor, one that’s able to lend an ear to students in need of help, Wood said. He’ll also be expected to provide safety presentations to staff and students about topics ranging from what to do if a gunman comes onto campus, to how to interact with others and portray oneself online, El Molino Principal Matt Dunkle said.

“At the core, it’s building and maintaining relationships with the students and staff at El Molino so he can be a resource and resolve problems,” Wood said. “Having Deputy Aldridge on site, they know the person who they can go to.”

El Molino secured the funding for the officer position after the district applied and was awarded money through a California Department of Justice grant program funded by state tobacco sales taxes.

In addition to getting Aldridge onto the campus, the grant also paid for vape detectors and signs warning against tobacco use at El Molino High, Analy High and Laguna High School, among other things, West Sonoma County Union High School District superintendent Toni Beal said.

The district was inspired to apply for the two-year grant after learning that the same program helped Petaluma High and Casa Grande High reboot their school resource officer program last school, Dunkle said. The grant sent an officer to each school 10 years after the program was cut because of financial and staffing constraints.

“Any way that we can increase safety for our staff and students is important,” Dunkle said, adding that the school’s rural location can mean large distances between students and the closest law enforcement officer. “In light of the unfortunate tragedies that have plagued our schools across the country, this sits well in providing peace of mind to our students and our community.

Aldridge, 50, applied for the post because of his deep ties with the Forestville community, where his family goes back to the late 1800s, he said. He’s worked graveyard shifts in west county for most of his career, and his experience proved invaluable during the 2017 North Bay wildfires, when he helped safeguard dozens of residents trapped at the Mark West Lodge overnight when flames blocked their way.

When he learned the school was looking for a school resource officer a few months ago, he knew he wanted to take the spot.

“This is where I grew up,” Aldridge said. “This is where I live and this is where I went to school. It’s really a better opportunity for me, to give back to my community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

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