As soon as he walked through the school's front doors, Mesa County sheriff's deputy Mike Dixon fixated on the boy, a quiet, lanky teenager with wrestling shoes and headgear attached to his backpack.
Dixon knew the teenager had recently competed, so he asked to see a video and the teen obliged, bringing up the wrestling match on his phone while he cracked a shy smile. They joked while watching the clip.
This brief interaction just before the winter break near the entrance of Central High School is just one example of the back-and-forth banter the deputy shares with students each day.
As a school resource officer, Dixon prompts dozens of these conversations with students in a day's time, and it seems they've gotten used to having him around, too. The fresh-faced, burly, 6-foot-something officer dressed in a bulletproof vest has been a mainstay at the school since the beginning of the school year.
In that time, students asked and Dixon agreed to serve as the grand marshal in the school's homecoming parade. He also attended the corresponding bonfire activities after students asked him to be there. The deputy, commonly known as "Big Mike," regularly answers the knock on his door and listens to students report issues running the gamut from stolen cellphones to sex assaults.
"At the beginning of the school year, nobody knew me," Dixon said in late December watching students enter the school. "I would actually purposefully go out and talk to kids. But now I have them hunting down my door. They trust me now."
In the wake of numerous deadly, nationwide mass school shootings over the past several years, officials in local law enforcement and local municipalities took a critical look at their school resource officer programs. While the programs have existed for years at local District 51 schools, officers were often pulled back into regular police duties as needed.
That changed after the deadliest mass school shooting in U.S. history last year, in which a student gunned down 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine's Day.
In response, local agencies announced plans to reinstate a number of school resource officers at District 51 schools.
At the start of 2018, eight school resource officers were assigned to District 51 high schools and middle schools. By the time students return to school Tuesday, there will be a total of 11 school resource officers and eight security officers. In the future, local municipalities, law enforcement and District 51 hope to boost the law enforcement presence to 14 school resource officers and one additional D51 security officer, for a total of nine. Security officers generally cover elementary schools and assist at the middle and high schools as needed. School resource officers generally cover high schools and middle schools.
NEW PRESENCE AT PALISADE
Unlike other District 51 high schools, Palisade High School has never had a dedicated school resource officer. That changes Tuesday as Palisade officer James Baker moves into the role. The 34-year-old has worked for the department for more than four years.
Becoming a school resource officer will help the department gain a better handle on some of the calls officers already respond to at the school.
"We'll be in the hallways all the time instead of after things happen," Baker said outside the school Thursday. "That's really important — that we'll get more face time with students."
Having an officer in the school makes sense because the school's population totals roughly 1,000 students and staff, equivalent to one-third of the town's population.
"It's a huge impact on the population and community," Palisade Police Chief Debra Funston said. "We need to focus on the school as its own little community."
Palisade trustees approved funding for a school resource officer in September, but the move required some shuffling and moving Baker from patrol duties.
The department hired two new officers for normal duties to make the switch, investing nearly $120,000 in the endeavor. Much of the expense stems from one-time startup costs like a new vehicle, computer and equipment.
"We've probably had more face time at the school this year than in years past," Funston said. "I think this is going to be a very positive step toward keeping our school and community safe. Unfortunately we've learned that school shootings have become a trend."
Mark Johnson, a supervisor for the Mesa County Sheriff's Office's school resource officer program, said the proactive approach is probably working, but it's impossible to quantify. He sees the role of a school resource officer as equal parts counselor, teacher and cop.
"We have students that are willing to talk to (Dixon) that have a hard time communicating with other adults, because he's taken the time to sit down with them and say, 'Tell me what's going on,'" Johnson said. "He's there. He listens. He's available."
Being available for students at Central High School has helped relieve some patrol deputies, especially at the nearby Long Family Memorial Park, "a problem area" for police, Johnson said.
For example, students caught smoking marijuana there may be referred to a District 51 program instead of immediately facing a minor-in-possession charge.
That's not to say students won't face criminal charges with a school resource officer presence. Earlier this school year, deputies broke up a fight among five students at the park. High school officials "took an aggressive stance," suspending 22 students who participated in the fight in any way. Some of those students now are facing criminal charges, Johnson said.
By knowing the students involved, school resource officers can follow up to get to the root of the issue with students, he said.
"We can help put that kid on another path," he said. "We know who they are and can ask, 'Why are you cutting class?' or 'Are these the kind of people you want to be hanging out with?'"
Johnson said it's hard to know whether having a school resource officer presence prevents crime, but proactive policing is still worth doing.
"We are never going to know the results of if it worked or not," he said. "The sheriff has prioritized this, making Mesa County the safest place to live, work and play and go to school, because this is where these kids live five days a week. At the end of the day we're the guardians. We're here to allow teachers to teach, principals to be primary educators, to allow the kids to be kids, and students to be students."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly used the term security guards, rather than security officers. Security officers are Peace Officer Standards and Training Board-certified, while security guards are not.