It’s lunchtime at Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA), and the porous campus in the center of Santa Ana – its nine buildings and nine parking lots are scattered over several city blocks — is teeming with creative and energetic teenagers.
Far from a traditional high school, OCSA has no clear borders.
Its buildings, at quick glance, appear to be commercial structures in the heart of the city (the grade 7-12 school extends to N. Bush Street on the east, N. Broadway on the west, W. Civic Center Drive on the south, and W. Washington Avenue on the north). To the south on Main Street is Calle Cuatro (or 4th Street) and to the north are Bowers Museum and the Discovery Cube.
Beginning in 2011, OCSA contracted with the Santa Ana Unified School District Police Department to have a full-time school resource officer (SRO) work with a team of private security guards to keep its students, faculty, and staff members safe.
The contract with the Santa Ana Unified School District Police Department dissolved in 2017, so it only seemed natural for OCSA to work directly with its hometown agency:
The Santa Ana Police Department.
Officer Sonia Rojo, in May 2018, became the first SAPD police officer assigned full-time to OCSA. And school staff members and students, as well as Rojo and SAPD brass, couldn’t be happier with the arrangement.
“She’s doing great,” says Michael Ciecek, Dean of Facilities and Supervision at OCSA, which has some 2,200 students.
Part mentor, part friendly face, part life coach — but always a police officer – the affable Rojo is an ideal presence at OCSA, a cop who relates easily to teenagers.
“When I first met her and spoke to her, it wasn’t about anything specific to any concerns I had,” says Jason Cohen, a senior studying instrumental music. “It was just, ‘Hey, nice to meet you.’ It was person to person.”
Cohen has attended OCSA for six years. He plays the trumpet and is interested in a career on the management side of the entertainment industry.
He appreciates Rojo’s presence at OCSA.
“I think her perspective on this community is really important,” says Cohen, 17, of Aliso Viejo. “She really makes it a point to make sure we feel comfortable here, and makes us understand that there are certain risks being here, but that we still need to be part of the community.
“She advocates for that continuously. Whenever she speaks with students, it’s like, ‘Hey, you know, you’re as much part of this community as everyone else here.’ She really makes sure that we feel connected.”
Rojo makes it a point to try to get to know as many students and OCSA staff members as she can.
On a recent school day, she patrolled the perimeter of the campus and popped into a couple of school buildings to check in on employees.
She stopped by a multi-unit apartment complex near OCSA to say hello to the manager. The manager is one of Rojo’s trusted “eyes and ears” who helps her keep the immediate surrounding neighborhoods safe.
“Because of all of the dynamics of the city, I really need to not only be a resource for the school, but also for the community,” says Rojo, who became an SAPD officer in 2010.
“I think that’s the biggest thing,” she adds. “I’ve built relationships with a lot of people. I’m here so often, I see familiar faces and easily make connections.”
Becca Freeland, OCSA’s Dean of Student Services, is happy to be working directly with the SAPD.
“I think our relationship with (the SAPD) is different than with the school district police,” Freeland says. “I feel like they (SAPD) are more part of our community, to be honest. They are vested in our school. I just feel like they’re embedded within the culture of our school, and they understand our students and staff. They’re very approachable.”
Rojo works four days a week at OCSA. A fellow SAPD officer, Antonio Graham, fills in for her as SRO when she is not available.
Freeland notes that OCSA has a professional mentorship program in which the school’s 11th-graders participate.
“One of Sonia’s connection, a CSI (crime scene investigator) at the Santa Ana PD, became a mentor to a student who was interested in a career in forensic science,” Freeland says. “And he made a presentation to one of our club meetings, which gave our students a valuable perspective.”
L.A. COUNTY NATIVE
Rojo was a standout four-year varsity softball player at La Puente High School. She attended the University of Nevada on a softball scholarship.
She originally wanted to be a paramedic for a fire department.
“The idea of responding to an emergency and helping someone was very interesting to me,” Rojo says.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts and a minor in Criminal Justice, Rojo worked as an EMT in L.A. County for three years.
A good friend who was a police officer at the Long Beach Police Department urged Rojo to apply to become a cop.
Rojo did a lot of research, and figured the Santa Ana Police Department would be a good fit.
“La Puente is similar to Santa Ana, only on a smaller scale,” she says. “I felt I would have a real connection to the city.”
In 2010, Rojo graduated from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Regional Training Academy.
Before becoming an SRO, she worked as a patrol officer for the SAPD. Her other assignments have included being a member of the Crisis Negotiations Team, the SAPD recruitment cadre, the Directed Enforcement Team, and working as a Narcotics/Vice detective.
“She’s a rock star,” says SAPD Deputy Chief Ken Gominsky, who selected Rojo for the position. “She does a fantastic job of representing the department.”
In addition to her SAPD radio, Rojo carries a second radio that connects to OCSA administrators as well as to the security officers who work during each of her shifts. Those security officers, who are employed by Pacwest Security, are on campus every school day and night.
“Sonia has to work with kids, parents, teachers, other staff members, counselors, and outside support agencies, so she has a bunch of hats she has to wear,” says Ciecek.
There isn’t a lot of crime at OCSA, Rojo says. Most of her reports are for fender-benders in the school’s parking lots – often involving students.
She pops into OCSA’s Business Office, which houses the school’s top administrators. Several of them are having lunch together at a conference table.
“She’s the best!” one administrator says of Rojo.
“We report to her what we see,” says Jena Duca, director of human resources. “We’ll call her and say, ‘Hey, such and such is happening, please come over and check it out.’”
Duca loves having a full-time SAPD SRO assigned to OCSA.
“It gives us a little bit more of a sense of security, that we’re being watched and protected,” she says. “Things have changed in this city a lot. I’ve been working here for the last 15 years, and there’s been a big shift in (crime), so just knowing that the SAPD is keeping an eye on us is very comforting.”
Like most O.C. cities, Santa Ana is experiencing more problems with the homeless.
“She’s amazing with them,” Duca says. “Sometimes people can be really rude to (the homeless), but she’s super nice when she talks to them. She talks to them on their level.”
Rojo parks outside “The Webb” (the named used by OCSA staff, students, and parents to refer to OCSA’s Center for the Arts Building) and unlocks the doors. They remain locked while two OCSA employees work the front desk.
“Hi everybody!” Rojo says, greeting the women.
She looks in a stairwell and checks out the theater.
All is clear.
Rojo greets the manager of an 11-unit apartment complex on the corner of Bush St. and Civic Center Drive.
Manny Ortega, who is out for a walk, has Rojo’s cell phone number. He will call her when he sees something hinky.
“One time I called her regarding some people at the (nearby) Burger King,” Ortega says. “We’ve had numerous problems with people there.”
Ortega says Rojo, and the entire SAPD, has done an “amazing” job making the area safer.
“It used to be so bad around here, I honestly was thinking about quitting,” Ortega says. “But we’ve seen a huge improvement.”
Right across the street from OCSA on its west side is Orange County Elementary Arts Academy (OCEAA) Elementary School, which has about 650 students.
Rojo regularly checks in on that K-8 school, too.
“She helps out all the time, every day,” says Enrique Luna, maintenance manager.
Luna and Mike Limon, Executive Director of OCEAA, say there’s a big problem with homelessness around the school.
“It’s a challenge for our teachers (and students),” Limon says, “but having her here is comforting.”
Says Rojo: “I have the privilege of being a School Resource Officer because it has afforded me the opportunity to positively impact the future leaders, inventors and front-runners of this country.”