When you’re a police officer and your beat is a high school campus, your interactions with students might be the difference in re-directing a kid off the wrong path and onto the right one.
That opportunity to impact impressionable young lives is what Cpl. Gabby Soto, 33, a school resource officer (SRO) with the Fullerton Police Department, loves most.
A nine-year member of the FPD, Soto is about to enter her fourth year as SRO at Fullerton Union High School, an assignment she specifically asked for.
“I don’t like the idea that a lot of young adults or teenagers have a fear of the police (or) don’t really like the police,” Soto said. “I thought it would be a good way to interact with them and have them see that we are normal people and that they can come up and talk to us and ask us for advice. (We’re not here) just to arrest them or to send them to court or get them in trouble.”
Soto’s passion for her role as SRO hasn’t gone unnoticed.
She recently received a 2016 Distinguished Safe Schools Award in the Law Enforcement category at the Safe Schools Conference, held July 20 at the Wyndham Hotel in Garden Grove.
As an SRO, Soto’s job is to enforce the law on the school grounds and keep the campus safe.
She interacts with students, teachers, parents and the overall community. She attends school open houses, athletic events and dances. She leads workshops on drug prevention, performs safety and active shooter training in English and Spanish and participates in Red Ribbon Week.
She and the Troy High School SRO, Andrew Coyle, run the Explorer program at FPD. Soto also is on call for a junior high and she visits all the elementary schools.
Soto was nominated for the Safe School Award by Sgt. Kathryn Hamel, her former supervisor, along with Fullerton High School Principal Rani Goyal.
“I’ve seen SROs who stay in the office,” Goyal said. “(Soto) is never in the office. She is always walking around throughout the entire day. She knows students’ names. She knows where they hang out. She knows what they are doing in their off time. She knows where they’re working. She knows them.”
An effective school resource officer is able to “build that bridge” between the community and the police, the principal said.
“I have never seen anybody build a better bridge than Gabby Soto,” Goyal said. “She has been able to build trust with the students. They feel very comfortable in letting her know what is happening on campus and around the community.”
Soto came to the U.S. from Mexico as a young child and was raised in Pasadena mostly by her mother in a single-family home.
Her mother, incidentally, has gone on to open her own hair salon.
Soto also has a younger brother who is a deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Soto got the bug to go into law enforcement while taking administration of justice courses at Cal State Fullerton.
She was accepted into the FPD’s cadet program, where she served for two years before becoming an officer.
On a typical day, Soto patrols Fullerton Union High’s vast campus in a golf cart with the campus supervisor.
“I don’t like sitting in one spot. I like being outside. The kids see me. If something happens, or if they need anything, I am easy to find.”
Common issues include bullying, fighting and drugs, and these days, sexting.
She offers a compassionate ear and provides resources for kids battling depression and break-ups and teens who may want to hurt themselves.
But most of the time, kids just want to chat about … whatever.
“Kids just want to talk to you about their game, about what college they are applying to, what they are going to wear to the dance, what is happening on Twitter,” Soto said.
Soto recalls one girl with poor grades who was headed in the wrong direction. She was sent to a continuation school, where she improved her grades and returned to Fullerton Union High.
Soto steered the girl to the FPD Explorers, an entry-level program for youngsters interested in careers in law enforcement.
The student excelled and began getting As and Bs. She then went on to Cypress Community College and is currently on the college soccer team.
“It’s just letting her know that she has support,” Soto said. “She probably never heard that at home or probably never had the resources at home so I think that helped her feel a little bit better.
“If I could just save one kid and turn them around from the direction they were headed, it’s worth it for me.”