DennisBeaverDecember 03, 2011 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Is there a window of opportunity — an age or grade level in school — where a kid headed for trouble has what will likely be the last chance to be helped and steered in the right direction?

Hanford School Resource Officer Per Westlund knows the answer to that question only too well. For him, “the time frame is junior high school, at the latest.”

“It is easier to intervene in the life of a junior high school student than a kid on the way to real trouble at high school, who, in his or her own mind, knows it all,” he said.

A healthy fear of consequences

“Working together with school personnel — and if we are lucky, responsible parents — we can often positively influence the attitude and direction of a troubled junior high student. At this level, they are still dependent on family, tend to have more respect and will listen to adults in general, and have a healthy fear of consequences.

“At junior high, these kids have not usually developed anti-authority attitudes, and someone wearing a police uniform gets their attention. SROs at the high school level have different challenges, and in many ways, a tougher job than mine.”

In a 15-year career as a police officer, Westlund has spent the past four as an SRO assigned to Hanford’s JFK and Woodrow Wilson junior high schools.

“Officer Westlund’s own background makes him especially well suited to the job of an SRO, where knowing how to communicate with students is critical, earning their trust and confidence, which can quite literally be life-saving qualities, keeping kids in school and away from the wrong people,” said Jason Strickland, principal at JFK.

“I have lived in the United States the past 25 years and come from a small Swedish town where, at an early age I realized just how important family and education is for future success,” Westlund said. “The values of my little town in Sweden are also very much a part of what I like about Hanford, which really is Small Town America. But today’s America is very different for parents, and a challenge for many families to raise kids in the best atmosphere.”

‘Don’t try to be your child’s ‘best friend’

To the Hanford SRO, that “best atmosphere” starts with parents who aren’t afraid “to be real parents, not trying to be their child’s best friend.”

“Growing up in Sweden, I was more fearful of what would happen to me at home if I got in trouble at school. A problem today, recognized by educators and law enforcement, is that too many parents refuse or simply do not know how to be parents. They want to be their children’s best friend and to be liked. In this environment, children can grow up without the concept of respect, not just for their parents, but for adults and people in positions of authority, in general.

“It is not through buying your kids everything they ask for that you are going to raise well-adjusted members of society. ‘No’ has its place. In order to succeed, children must be taught one of life’s most important lessons: You have to earn what you get.

“All children manipulate their parents. It’s hard-wired from birth, a tool in the psychology of survival tool kit we are born with. But you can raise a failure by saying ‘yes’ when you should be saying ‘no,’ hoping that they will listen to you, because you are so nice. That is giving in to manipulation,and teaching the child dangerous lessons on how to make one’s way in the world.”

JFK’s Strickland agrees.

“Parenting which rewards a young child’s non-stop demands often leads to huge behavioral issues once at junior high school, when children are in a more rigorous educational and social setting. Suddenly they hear ‘no’ from their teachers, are required to come to school at the proper time and complete homework.

“Those who have been allowed to avoid the rules are headed for academic and social frustration, disappointment and anger. As we see these signs as early as the sixth grade, you come to a realization of just how critical a role parents have in their child’s lives, how parenting skills can dictate their child’s future.”

(Next week, we’ll examine that recipe and its ingredients.)

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.