‘Cops weren’t so nice,’ a Ceres student felt. This officer changed that outlook

Police officers who work their entire shifts on school campuses think Ceres has someone special in Lorenzo Beltran.

He will receive the National School Resource Officer of the Year Award from a group that promotes these partnerships between police and educators.

Beltran, one of four such officers with the Ceres Police Department, works mainly at Central Valley High School. He stands ready to draw his handgun to quell a threat of violence, but mostly he’s there to connect with his young charges.

“You have kids who come from broken homes, rough areas,” Beltran told The Modesto Bee during a recent lunchtime stroll around campus. “... It’s the interaction, building a trust with them, that’s rewarding to me.”

Beltran will receive the honor June 24 during the annual conference of the National Association of School Resource Officers in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Its award committee, made up mostly of fellow officers, made the selection.

“This strikes me as an officer who is incredibly passionate about the role he is in,” Executive Director Mo Canady said by phone from Alabama, where the group is based.

The idea of cops on campus started in Flint, Michigan, in the 1950s and took off nationally in the 1990s, Canady said. A federal survey in 2016 found that 42 percent of public schools had an officer at least one day a week.

The Ceres Unified School District, the second-largest in Stanislaus County, covers the cost of the officers for the city.

The largest district, Modesto City Schools, lost its officers in 2015 because of short police staffing. It responded by boosting the number of unarmed security guards.

The Turlock Unified School District, the county’s third-largest, has city police officers at Turlock and Pitman high schools.

Beltran, 37, grew up in south Modesto. He said he might have struggled himself were it not for mentors who involved him in chess and baseball. He attended Shackelford Elementary School, Blaker-Kinser Junior High School and Ceres High School.

A stint with the Ceres Police Explorers stoked Beltran’s interest in law enforcement. He studied criminal justice at Modesto Junior College, worked for two years as a Stanislaus County Jail deputy, then completed the police academy next to the Sheriff’s Department.

Beltran has been with the Ceres department for 12 years, the last four on the school beat. Along with Central Valley, he visits Blaker-Kinser and three elementary schools — Westport, Beaver and Hidahl.

Beltran is part of the police SWAT team, meaning he can be called away from campus and spend hours at a standoff or other emergency. He drew on his tactical experience to create evacuation plans for all Ceres campuses. He works with unarmed school employees to refine emergency procedures, but he is clearly the first line of defense.

“All my kids know, when active shooters come on campus, my job is to eliminate that threat, stop that threat,” he said. “... I can’t wait for my backup to get here.”

Beltran has not had any major incidents on campus but keeps his eyes open for drug, weapon and other crimes. He invites students to drop by his campus office and does presentations on drugs and gangs.

Central Valley secretary Jasmin Barragan compiled the award nomination, filled with letters from people touched by Beltran. One is a student who heard him speak in a classroom.

“I was too shy to share why I felt like cops weren’t so nice,” the unnamed student wrote. “My dad is in jail for his third time because of drugs and immigration. After your visit, I felt better and understood the risks officers make to have safe communities.”

Beltran advises the high school’s Criminal Justice Club. Member Sarah Canales told The Bee that she appreciates his presence on campus — “just being involved with the kids and making sure everything is great at school.” The junior hopes to become a crime scene investigator.

Beltran talks with students about officer-involved shootings, notably the death last year of Stephon Clark during an encounter with Sacramento police. The district attorney there found that the officers rightly feared for the safety, but the controversy goes on.

“Social media, they only show the juicy parts of what happens in that scenario,” Beltran said. “... I explain that there are two sides of the story.”

The officer has three children of his own in Ceres schools and coaches youth sports in the city. The award packet noted that he even offers his classic convertible to students needing a ride for prom.

“We just like how he’s more involved with the school,” said Jovani Mercado, another junior at Central Valley. “He makes us feel safer as he’s walking around and talking to us.”

Beltran strives to avoid arrest or suspension for campus wrongdoers, which would interfere with their education. And he likes to engage early with elementary school kids.

“I want them to be able to approach a cop on the street to say, ‘hi’,“ Beltran said. “We’re human. We bleed the same color as them. We breathe the same air as them.”