Piedmont Police Officer Nicole Casalnuovo, the department’s new Juvenile Officer, hasn’t missed a beat transitioning from working the graveyard shift to a more visible daytime role working with the school community.
The hiring of a “dedicated officer with significant additional school and youth-related training to respond to reported incidents on school campuses” was the result of months of debate at the City Council and School Board level over how to best implement a California Department of Justice’s Tobacco Grant program. (See the full report here.) Initial discussions originally centered around hiring a Student Resource Officer, a controversial proposal that ultimately resulted in the modified Juvenile Officer hire. The three-year grant includes the funding of diversion programs to curb student drug and alcohol use, adolescent mental health training, and implicit bias training.
Police Chief Jeremy Bowers said in a statement to the Exedra that Casalnuovo distinguished herself during the interview process. “First and foremost, Officer Casalnuovo has a genuine desire to work with youth not strictly from an authoritative perspective but more so from a relational perspective built on trust and a mutual understanding that she (and we in the larger police department) are here to help, mentor and guide our young people and the decisions they make.” Bowers went on to note that because this is a new program, he was looking for someone who was willing to venture into uncharted territory and be willing to take the initiative connecting with school staff, students and parents.
Officer Casalnuovo sat down with the Exedra on August 23 to discuss her new role.
“My goal is to have zero Piedmont kids enter into the juvenile justice system,” said Casalnuovo, noting her interest in the root causes of student behavioral issues. “I’d like to be that go-between that buffers them from that and then to help rehabilitate them away from destructive behavior.”
For the past four years, Casalnuovo has been on late-night patrol for the Piedmont Police Department. Now that she’s out and about during the day, meeting new people, the change has “been a little bit of a culture shock,” she said. Previously she worked at law enforcement agencies in Marin and Sonoma Counties. Combined with her time spent as an Air Force analyst, Casalnuovo has about 14 years of experience in the military and law enforcement.
When the juvenile officer position opened, Casalnuovo decided to apply because she thought it would be a good fit for her. “I’ve always loved working with kids,” Casalnuovo said. “I was gymnastics instructor for most of my life and a gymnast growing up and it’s been a passion to mentor [kids] and see them excited about life.” She said her brother and sister-in-law are also School Resource Officers, providing her with a good support network.
A part of the tobacco grant goes towards funding a part-time counselor who is going to be working in conjunction with the Wellness Center. Casalnuovo is hoping the counselor will be one of her strongest allies going forward. Casalnuovo plans to develop a diversion program to assist in preventing students from going to the district attorney’s office and coming up with solutions.
She referenced a Parent Project training in Los Angeles she recently attended. The focus was about strengthening the family unit and learning coping strategies of how to deal with behavioral issues. She hopes to start similar training programs in Piedmont.
Most of her early work this school year has been based on building relationships and bridging the gap between what the school community perceives the police department to be and vice versa.
Because she is not a School Resource Officer (an officer who works on school campuses) Casalnuovo said her primary functions are patrolling for Piedmont. Casalnuovo has been meeting with the school administration, teachers, and counselors a couple times a week. At this stage her campus presence is based upon request by the school district. “My role isn’t to come in and all of a sudden start dropping charges on these kids even when they do have repeated behavior issues,” Casalnuovo said.
“As far as the disciplinary end of it, that’s going to stay at the school level. They have total control over that.”PPD Juvenile Officer Nicole Casalnuovo
“When the school has an issue that they need me to respond to, they’re going to contact me directly or through our dispatcher, depending on what the issue is, be it a behavioral issue or a criminal issue or advice,” Casalnuovo clarified.
Casalnuovo said her interaction with youth on campus has been limited so far.
“I don’t just walk onto the school campus,” she stated. “If I do, I always go to the front office, check in, make sure administrators are aware that I’m there and then hopefully build upon that to where there is more of a level of comfort.” Although she can mostly be seen around the two high school campuses, Casalnuovo hopes to eventually respond to all Piedmont schools.
Casalnuovo acknowledged the sense of mistrust with police right now and responded to one of the primary concerns community members had during the SRO debate earlier this year: the criminalization and oppression of students of color. “I think it’s a delicate issue; I understand their concerns,” she said. “My goal is to build trust and to build levels of communication and to bridge that gap. I don’t expect it to happen overnight. I want to work hard to gain their trust and to gain that understanding and their acceptance.”
Currently she is looking at attending meetings with groups like Piedmont Appreciating Diversity Committee to start the conversation and discuss concerns. “I think the more those concerns are voiced to me and the more I’m aware of what they are, the better I can respond,” Casalnuovo said.
When it comes to calling for back-up, Casalnuovo said she will request more law enforcement presence if there is ever a potentially violent situation. Referencing the recent case of backpack thefts at PHS, because she was the primary point of contact she initially handled the case but it evolved into a situation where she needed to call for assistance just to have extra bodies to help her. “It will primarily fall on me every time,” she said. “But we’re never going to put anybody’s safety in jeopardy just because it’s my task.”
When there are occasions she is invited to, Casalnuovo said she’ll be present to engage with the school community. “I will be attending all the home football games or any of the sporting events that I’m invited to, not just as a police officer, but I want to be there with the kids to support and show my commitment to them,” she said.
One of her end goals is to develop a lasting relationship where the school district and police department can work together on bigger issues that could involve crime or juvenile delinquency. “Right now at the beginning point, it is a lot of juggling,” said Casalnuovo. “But I have a great support network here. The school administrators have been phenomenal. It’s about putting our heads together and coming up with the best solutions.”
All photos by Sarah Belle Lin