Everything looks the same.
Royal blue awnings cover paved walkways with bronze plaques representing decades of graduating classes.
The quad is still a favorite hangout for students between classes and the parking lot is a morning meeting spot before the first bell rings.
But much has changed since Officer Justin Bender was a student at La Habra High School.
Teens now face different challenges, and as La Habra High’s School Resource Officer, Bender helps them navigate adolescence.
“I have quite a few kids that come in just to talk,” he said. “There are a lot of things I do that are more of a counseling role.”
Not every kid who breaks a rule is immediately cited. Sometimes, Bender said, students just need someone to talk to.
“If they are skipping class, I find out why; maybe they are being bullied and they don’t want to go to school,” he said. “Kids make mistakes. If they can learn from it rather than pay for it, and I can give them a second chance, I’ll do that.”
He didn’t want to give the year he graduated or his age, saying he didn’t want students looking up past photos. Let’s just say Bender is not too far removed from being a student, which he said helps him understand teens and the issues they face.
It wasn’t that many years ago that Bender ran the 400 for the LHHS track team and graduated from the school’s Marketing and Business Academy.
On weekends, he would drag race in Pomona or tinker with his custom GMC truck that he built from the ground up.
When he was in school, marijuana was the big drug that tempted teens. He witnessed a couple of fistfights, and social media was just starting to gain popularity.
Baseball caps with any logo other than the school’s were banned, and slow songs were a mainstay at school dances.
After graduating high school, Bender worked with his father at the family spray-on truck bed liner business for a while, but lost interest.
He started working as a tutor at La Habra High School, helping kids with their math and history work. Bender considered becoming a teacher.
Then he thought about law enforcement.
Bender’s grandfather was an LAPD detective and lieutenant. It seemed intriguing, he said.
“I thought it would be interesting to do something different and not be confined to an office,” he said. “I also wanted to give back to the community.”
He joined La Habra PD in April 2012. Last year, an opening came up for a school resource officer at his alma mater.
Bender applied and was selected. He immediately felt comfortable on campus.
Nothing at the school looked all that different, and many of the teachers he had are still instructing today.
“It made sense for me to be here,” he said. “I know a lot of the teachers, I know where everything is and I know my way around.”
But quickly, Bender was made aware of how things have changed at La Habra High.
On one of his first days, he ordered a student to remove a baseball cap that didn’t have La Habra’s logo.
The student looked at him puzzled.
“We can wear these now,” the student said.
“I just said, ‘Oh, OK,’” Bender said.
At one of the first dances he helped chaperone every song was fast, and Bender wanted to know why.
“We don’t want the students getting too close,” one of the teachers explained.
Like song tempo really matters.
“Sometimes the fast songs are worse,” said Bender, laughing. “I had to shine my flashlight to break up some of these kids.”
Those are the light-hearted things he handles — the kinds of things that solicit a head shake and a general musing about the way kids are today.
Then there are the serious issues: drugs, social media, bullying, peer pressure.
These are the things Bender is laser-focused on.
“Schools are at such a high-risk,” he said. “There needs to be a presence on campus so kids are deterred from bringing things onto campus such as weapons, drugs or graffiti materials.”
It is his job, he said, to stay up on the latest trends, to understand the dangers and keep students safe and informed.
“I go to as much training as I possibly can. That way I can inform these teens with a better knowledge of what is going on,” he said.
Marijuana remains a temptation for teenagers, but now heroine, synthetic cannabis called spice and prescription pills are readily available in schools across Orange County.
In April, Bender attended law enforcement training on teen alcohol and drug abuse and teen drunken driving.
He also organized a presentation this school year for parents and students on issues concerning social media.
“Now there is a lot more social media pressure,” he said. “There’s a lot of cyber bullying, a lot of negative comments online. Everybody knows everything, and nothing is secret.”
Beyond policing and serving as a counselor for the students at La Habra High, Bender said his job also is about building relationships in the community.
“It’s important for us to be on campus because they see officers are approachable,” he said. “They ask me questions they normally wouldn’t ask an officer on the street.
“It connects the gap.”