Teachers say many of these eighth through 12th graders — who may only wear gang-neutral colors to school — have had negative interactions with police in the past. But not with Cooper, the Mountain View Police Department's school resource officer, who is regarded as a mentor and friend by many of them.
On Monday the Voice spent the morning with Cooper, who made the rounds to Terra Bella and German International School. At Terra Bella, students welcomed him with props (kind of like a high-five), and were eager to talk about sports and joke around. Cooper, 43, greeted each of the nearly 60 students by name as they ran in and out of their small school building, preparing for their Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Half hugging the officer, one student asked jokingly who had invited him. "This is my school, don't forget that," Cooper joked back.
"He is very unpolice-like," said teacher Steve Sanchez, while Cooper helped several of the students with the barbeque. "He can just come here and hang out. He is the only police officer I have met like this."
Cooper's official hours are from 5:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, which gives him time to check in at Crittenden Middle School and the police department, and also visit other public schools as he makes his daily rounds. He and another school resource officer are assigned to different campuses. Since he spends so much time at the schools, he said he hopes the students see him more as a friend.
"A lot of times when they see an officer it is when he or she is coming to take their mom or dad to jail," Cooper said of younger students. "I wanted [the students] to have an officer they could go to and say anything."
Champion of youth
Cooper, who has two teenage daughters of his own, works considerably more than his official hours, devoting much of his free time to helping at-risk youth. He runs the department's "Dreams and Futures" summer gang prevention program, started "Cops That Care," the department's annual holiday giving program, and is launching a boxing league this month as part of the Police Activities League.
It is all these extra efforts that have earned Cooper special accolades from the Challenge Team, a group of education, law enforcement and community leaders who meet monthly to discuss problems facing at-risk youth. The Challenge Team has named Cooper its 2008 "Champion of Youth," and honored him Thursday during their 21st annual fundraiser breakfast.
On Monday, Cooper stopped at the German International School of Silicon Valley for a DARE Awareness event — a program designed to keep kids off drugs — then headed over to Terra Bella and Crittenden Middle School.
Following his talk at the International School, Cooper put a $20 bill on the ground, and told students they could keep the money if they jumped over it with their hands touching their toes. After a few failed tries, Cooper told the students, "Your brain is very powerful, so you can do anything." He added that if they practiced and were able to jump over a bill the next time he returned, he would give it to them.
"He has a good relationship with a lot of kids, both kids who are at risk and kids who are doing well," said Sanndy Charette, the assistant principal at Crittenden, during Cooper's visit there. "We would keep him here every day all day, if we could."
Cooper said he became a police officer about 12 years ago unexpectedly, after growing bored with his job as an engineer at IBM. His brother-in-law had recently joined the San Jose Police Department, and after a couple ride-alongs with him, Cooper was hooked. He patrolled for over eight years, then applied for the four-year position as school resource officer in 2005.
He said he loves working with kids, but unlike patrolling, he often takes the stresses home with him. He worries he can help students get on the right track.
"My wife notices that I carry a lot," he said.
On Monday morning, Cooper, an athletically built man just under six feet tall, shied away from discussing his volunteerism, and said he was surprised to receive the award from the Challenge Team. Most of these students just need a friend, he says.
Cooper has mentored several of the Terra Bella students, taking them to record music with his brother, a rapper, and employing them to do yard work at his home.
'They need mentoring'
Last year when gang associations were a bigger problem in the middle schools — with students wearing gang colors and getting into fights — Cooper also worked one-on-one with the students. After the school became tougher on such associations, gangs became less of an issue, Cooper said.
"Last year, we arrested for anything to do with gangs," Cooper said. "It was not meant to punish the kids," he said, adding he hoped it would help them back away from gang life.
At Crittenden, Cooper learns that a particular student, who was arrested only last year, has turned things around, and recently attended an out-of-state trip. A huge smile crosses his face. Following the arrest, Cooper said, he had cried when meeting the student's mother, who reminded him of his own mother-in-law.
"I am totally impressed with him," he said. "When they are in middle school, sometimes they need mentoring."