Tuning into the kinds of television shows that are popular with high school students wasn't part of the job description when Julie Towton signed up to become the town's school resource officer. But it's the kind of extracurricular activity that the constable is hoping will help change the face of policing with youth in the community. And given that she's known around the halls as Officer Julie, as opposed to the far more formal Const. Towton, she seems to be doing something right. "I've stayed up to watch MTV .... I end up listening to the same music they do ... "I can at least relate to some of the stuff they're going through, or the technology they're using, or the shows they're watching," says Towton, a 10-year officer with the Ontario Provincial Police who started at St. Marys District Vocational Institute last spring after stints at detachments in North Perth and West Perth.It was the opportunity to help foster a positive relationship between police and youth that appealed to Towton about the job, a position to arise from the town's most recent contract negotiations with the OPP. Though based in the school five days a week, Towton is first and foremost a front-line officer. When not at the school, which is primarily over holidays, she is available to assist other officers at the St. Marys detachment if there's an emergency or to cover if officers are pulled out of town. Steve Cousins, who chairs the town's police services board, calls the school officer a positive, pro-active initiative."This is a strategic investment that is about relationships ... role-modeling ... education. We're shifting the whole notion of what policing is about," he says. Crime statistics for St. Marys continue to show some positive trends, and it's no coincidence, adds Cousins, who credits police-led initiatives including increased patrol and enforcing a provincial curfew for the drop in property crimes and mischief in recent months. Adding the school officer to the mix is just another step in the right direction, he says. "I've lived here my whole life. (The policing) has never been better than it is right now," he adds.Towton doesn't deny that investigating potential criminal activity - whether it's as minor as someone being punched or as serious as someone carrying drugs, takes up the majority of her time inside the school, though she's quick to note things are no different for the two other school resource officers in Perth County (in Mitchell and Listowel). "We're all dealing with the same stuff," she says. In the case of a minor assault, for instance, where the youth has no previous criminal record, Towton, under the province's new diversion protocol, will direct youth into a counselling or community service program rather than lay charges. "It's been effective," she says. "It gives the youth back some control over their actions."But when it comes to more serious crimes, "I still have to do my job," adds Towton."If I don't do my job just to save a relationship with a youth, it's going to come back to bite me."But I tell them," she adds, "if I charge you today for something, tomorrow it's forgotten."Just off of the school's foyer is Towton's office, where the door is always open. Students will stop by on the way to class to show off their new haircut or tell her how they did during the latest basketball game. They'll also stop in with questions about a friend they fear is on the wrong path, looking for contact information for a support service or simply because they need a pair of ears to listen while they vent. Towton recalls one student who came to her to talk about troubles she was having at home. She referred the student to Victim Services, which provided counselling to the youth and was able to improve the situation. "The kid needed help and didn't know where to turn, and I was able to help them."That's what I hoped the job would be."Towton says she has many organizations, resources and programs she can refer to students.
"I can't solve all the problems but I know so many people who can help, and that's one of the huge benefits with me being here."Each week Towton visits one or two classes. This week she was to talk to students about the Highway Traffic Act, liquor related offences and careless driving, while in another class she was to discuss how to pursue a career in policing. Given the position's beginning as a pilot project funded by the county's meth task force, she's also done many presentations about drugs, their effects and the consequences of using. Whether it is marijuana, methamphetamine or alcohol, Towton says drugs are still very much a part of youth culture, though she notes they are only a problem with a minority of students."I try to be more active and ask them what they know, what they think they know, and clarify from there," she says, of her presentations. Towton's activities spread outside regular school hours as well. She's attended school dances and a parent-teacher night. To keep her connected with students, Towton has been equipped with a cellphone with unlimited texting. The town's polices services board also recently approved, at a couple thousand dollars a year, a laptop that, unlike officers' regular computers, will have full access to popular social network sites like Facebook. "I already have followers who want to add me as their friend," adds Towton, with a laugh, adding, "If I don't have the technology to keep up, they'll leave me in the dust."She notes many instances of bullying and harassment are done by way of text message, updates on Facebook or Tweet via Twitter.The police board also recently agreed to fund sending Towton to Niagara Falls in the new year to take part in a conference designed specifically for school officers. The board will support any opportunities for Towton to receive additional training or to expand a skill set, says Cousins. "I think we need continuous improvement," he adds. "We want her to be the best school officer in Canada."Towton, while not ready to embrace those expectations just yet, is equally optimistic about the direction her job is heading. "I see so much potential," she adds.