Going to school pays off, both for the students and for the Menlo Park police officer whose mission it is to make sure the kids get to class. Officer Mary Ferguson received the Police Service Award from the Peninsula Council of Lions Clubs on March 20 for her work with the city's youth.
"Mary has been phenomenal in working with schools, students and families," Menlo Park Police Chief Bob Jonsen told the Almanac. "Her passion for the position is evident and Menlo Park benefits every day from the proactive interaction she has with at-risk youth."
Five years ago, Officer Ferguson created a truancy-abatement program. Now, she gets to focus on kids full-time, particularly those attending Belle Haven Elementary School. Facebook agreed in 2014 to pay the city up to $220,000 a year for at least three years to fund a community service officer position to reduce truancy and gang activity and create safety plans for local schools and businesses.
"Most kids -- all they want to know is at the end of the day somebody cares about them," Officer Ferguson said. "A lot of these youth feel a disconnect with their community, school, family or friends. By going on campus a few times a week, I am able to check in and let them know that they matter. I am blessed to work with such an inspiring group of kids."
The elementary school doesn't have a large truancy problem, she said, it's more a matter of not getting to school on time for reasons that she works with the family to resolve.
"Often families are hesitant to invite me into their homes; however, with persistence, I am able to prove my true intentions of helping the family," she said. Likewise, at school, where students initially didn't want her around, she is now "greeted with smiles and hugs... most of the time."
In addition to meeting with each class at Belle Haven Elementary, she teaches life skills for sixth- through eighth-graders with volunteers from the nonprofit Alive and Free, and anger management for minors sent through the police department's diversion program.
Next year she plans a larger presence at Willow Oaks Elementary School, and meanwhile offers assistance to all Menlo Park schools as needed.
Sometimes this means making visits to talk about what a police officer does. "(It's) a great opportunity to make these children's first encounter with law enforcement a positive one," she said. "In light of all the negative media, I do not want our youth to fear us; I want them to view us as their friends."
Sometimes it means stopping during a weekend tour of duty through Belle Haven to shoot hoops and pull weeds with the kids, like she did a couple weeks ago. "I don't recall ever having so much fun patrolling my beat as I did that Sunday," she said.
Officer Ferguson earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and sociology, and has also attended multiple training programs on juvenile diversion and truancy, according to the Menlo Park Police Department, which she joined about nine years ago.