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Effort helps build bonds, enhance safety
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It was a high-five with fourth grade students at New Haven Elementary School when Officer Steve Harris made his rounds through the cafeteria Friday. Harris shares the school safety assignments with Officer Sam Gallego. - photo by GLENN KAHL

Children have bonded with two Manteca Police officers that have been assigned to circulate among the 15 elementary schools in the district on a daily basis.

Sam Gallego and Steve Harris retired two years ago from the force after serving about 30 years each from patrol to narcotics and SWAT.  They both have more than 17 years with the emergency response rifle team and have extensive experiences with drug cases.

Both are popular figures when they appear on campus. Children run up to them when they are in sight, just to say hello and to ask if they have any paper badges in their pockets to give them.

Harris said Friday that the school assignments are a stark contrast to police work where he and Gallego dealt with negative situations for years that added stress to their lives compared to working with the elementary school kids and staff members who are always friendly and happy to see them.

One little girl asked him from a group of three on a school playground if he was there to get someone.  He replied he was only there to see that she and her friends were safe from harm.

Both officers work full days – one takes Mondays and Tuesdays and the other works Thursdays and Fridays. They switch Wednesday every other week.  Harris explained that they both make their rounds to nine school campuses every day when on duty.

The veteran officer noted that traffic can be a particular problem at Neil Hafley School where parents are asked to park on Northgate Drive and not to enter the parking lot in front of the school to pick up their children.

He said when he is not around, motoring parents will just move the no parking standards and drive right in.  When he has his black and white unit parked at the driveway entrance, the parents don’t violate the no parking plan, he said. 

“The crossing guard must have thanked me five times the other day for being there.  She told me that my presence in front of the school just took the edge off of the traffic problem,” he added.

Walking the campuses with a high visibility (in terms of) a police presence, is what the chief wants us to be doing,” Harris explained. 

Neil Hafley School Principal Steve Anderson lauded the safety officer program saying, “I hear thank you from parents and kids all the time – it’s great – you can’t undervalue it.”

Anderson agreed that when Harris or Gallego are out in front of the school there is no parking or traffic problem. 

“I’m not the kids’ hero any longer – it’s now Officer Harris,” he quipped.

Harris added that he has had kids come up and mob him on campus with some telling him how much they love him – quite a departure from chasing the bad guys.

Both patrolmen have taken part in the “Read Across America” program in the classrooms.  Harris specifically had grades one, two and six in the reading program.  They have also given presentations in the classes on safety and most popular is explaining their lives behind the badge.

The office staff at New Haven said their children at the school really enjoy the officers coming on campus to talk with them on a regular basis.

In just an hour-long glimpse of the officer’s normal day, he had visited the McParland School Annex, walked through the office and onto the playground at Neil Hafley School and made a stop at New Haven Elementary School on Austin Road.

 It was in his walkthrough at the New Haven cafeteria that he ended up high-fiving a group of students just finishing their lunches.  As he stood by the door and the students filed out to the playground they all gave him a slap of the hand with broad smiles as they passed him by.

Administrative Sergeant Jody Estarziau said the program is funded through the end of the school year. She added that there is no plan presently for its continuation at the beginning of the next year in the fall.