MIDLOTHIAN — Sgt. Richard Pena has been with the Midlothian Police Department for almost nine years and until recently that time was spent as a patrol officer.
Just after Christmas, his role in the department changed to school resource officer. He splits his time between Walnut Grove and Frank Seale middle schools working with the students.
“This job came open a couple of times, but prior to this I wasn’t really mentally prepared. This time (when the job opened up) I thought long and hard and decided this was what I wanted to do. The choice was mine,” Pena said.
Pena is one of two SRO officers in the Midlothian school district. Officer James Smith has filled that role at Midlothian High School for about five years.
“They wanted a supervisor over here. We are a two-man unit. He has shown me the ropes,” he said. “We don’t want to seem like we sit in an office until the police are needed. Our goal is being proactive – getting to know the students.”
Pena believes that by being visible and interacting with the kids earns their trust. He said they come to him with their problems.
“You don’t want to wait until a problem becomes a police issue. We want them to succeed. We want to be there for them before they go down the wrong path,” he said.
He said when he first came to the campuses, he learned the best time to meet students and become friends is at lunch. It is a good time to mingle and say hello. He tries to make every one of the lunch periods to connect with the kids.
“My son is in sixth grade at Walnut Grove so I fell in very quickly with people he knew,” he said, saying he also has a son attending Vitovsky Elementary. “The students want to talk. But I have to be open and put myself out there.”
The SRO officers are in the schools day to day. During summer or holidays, they work patrol at the department.
The change in his position has been a transition, but he said being a parent has made it easier. Pena is the father of three sons and one daughter. Now rather than interacting with adults, he’s talking to middle school students and he said that is a very different conversation.
“Instead of having four kids I have 900 at Walnut Grove and 1,700 at Frank Seale,” he said. “I am thankful to the schools for having us here and this program. I commend them.”
Pena is originally from Houston and moved to Midlothian when he was in fifth grade. He is a graduate of Midlothian High School.
“I wanted to raise my kids here. I have a vested interest in the school district and the town,” he said.
In addition to interacting with students and working to build their trust and confidence, he presents information to help them make good choices and succeed.
Last week he participated in an anti-bullying program at FSMS and Kick-Butts week is planned in April to educate students about tobacco use.
“I would like to get involved with Students Against Drunk Driving,” he said saying he is also looking at presenting information on the dangers of drugs and addressing the issues of student safety for spring break. He said parents have their hands full in this “tech era.” It is not enough to just know where kids are, they can be sitting right next to their parents getting into troublesome situations on the computer.
“I’ve had great feedback from parents who have called to offer their appreciation,” he said. “This is a big team effort to make the district and schools as safe as possible. The superintendent, principals and staff are very supportive.”
Pena sees the program evolving over time with more programs and officers. He said they are constantly attending trainings to improve and prepare for any situation that might occur.
Working as a patrol officer, he said there was certainly the opportunity to help people but that was often intervening and mediating – seeing the bad in the world.
“Here, nine out of 10 days are great days. Kids are happy. So you deal with the happy part and the helping part,” he said. “I look forward to coming to work every day.”
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