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Cloquet has a cop in the schools again

Erik Blesener helps the crossing guard get children safely across the busy street of the Cloquet Middle School at the begining of the school year. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal1 / 3
School Resource Officer (SRO) Erik Blesener stands watch in the Cloquet High School hallway between periods as students rush to their classes. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 3
Erik Blesener3 / 3

School Resource Officer (SRO) Erik Blesener is back in the Cloquet schools after a 15-year hiatus.

Once he walked through the doors this year, Blesener realized how much he had missed working in the school system.

"I can make a positive difference for some students," he said enthusiastically. "The principals are happy and the kids are getting to know me."

Blesener works with all of the schools in the Cloquet district, including the alternative school. There are about 1,600 students in the middle and high schools alone.

Blesener hopes that visiting with elementary students will improve trust between youth and law enforcement as well as deter misbehavior when they become teens. Sometimes, he drops in to eat lunch with the youngsters in an effort to get to know them.

"My job is to protect the most precious of all cargo: the students," Blesener said.

He alternates between wearing his police uniform and more casual attire, like khaki pants and a polo shirt, when working in the schools. The more visible police uniform helps prevent violence and misbehavior from students. He also carries a gun, handcuffs, chemical spray and a Taser while he works.

Blesener worked as a police school liaison officer from 1997 to 2001, when he was in his 20s. The program ended when grant funding ran out.

Since Blesener first served as an SRO, he has raised two teenagers. His son is a freshman at CHS and his daughter is a college student.

The school district is now paying Blesener's wages during the school year, so the SRO program is back in action.

There is no "normal" day for Blesener, who says the only constant is change. He receives calls for assistance with students from different schools several times every day.

"Nationally, 33 percent of officer calls are to schools," Blesener said.

Things have changed since the first time around. Blesener received training for working with students before moving into the schools this fall. Training is optional and not required by the state.

During the school year, Blesener is paid by the school district. When the school year ends, he will go back on patrol for the city.

The way student offenders are handled and the justice system have also changed. Other changes in the school include the addition of two mental-health workers and an additional guidance councilor.

The job of the Police School Liaison Officer used to be viewed as a pipeline from the school to the criminal justice system. Now they do their best to avert a situation and avoid sending students into the system.

Blesener enjoys visiting with students during events as well as keeping high visibility so the students become accustomed to his presence. He expects that will lead to building trust and friendships with students. He hopes that if a student has an issue or concern, they will feel comfortable approaching him for assistance in the future.

Blesener is sometimes a guest speaker during a class, such as health. He educates the students on the dangers and realities of using drugs.

One of the biggest surprises and a concern to Blesener is the number of students using marijuana recreationally. While many students believe the drug is harmless, Blesener knows better.

"It stops brain growth," Blesener said.

Blesener reminds drivers on Washington Avenue in front of the new middle school to drive slower and pay attention when school is let out.

Blesener is considered a staff member while he works in the schools. He can write tickets to students for possession of tobacco, marijuana or disorderly conduct. He doesn't have the power to discipline a student with detention or suspension. If a student becomes defiant and refuses to listen to teachers or the principal, Blesener can transport the student to the crisis shelter.

"Once they get into the criminal justice system, it's hard to get out," Blesener said.

He keeps track of at-risk students so he can intervene before a problem escalates and they enter the justice system. He monitors absences and will contact parents if there are more absences than allowed to seek a solution.

He likes the new restorative justice system approach to help students learn how to deal with problems and work through mistakes instead of punishing them.

"I like to get to know the kids and learn their story," Blesener said.