School resource officer named cop of the year

School Resource Officer Fernando Luis is the Ridgefield Police Department’s Officer of the Year. —Steve Coulter photo

School Resource Officer Fernando Luis is the Ridgefield Police Department’s Officer of the Year. —Steve Coulter photo

Whether it’s patrolling the downtown area on his bike in the warm summer months or walking down the halls of the high school during the school year, Officer Fernando Luis is enthusiastic about his role as a police officer.

“It’s something that’s just in me,” said Officer Luis, the Ridgefield Police Department’s Officer of the Year. “Helping the community out, being involved in the kids’ lives, and partaking in anything that can benefit others — this was a job that was a natural fit for me.”

Officer Luis has taken the role of school resource officer and made it his own — teaching classes the dangers of drugs and alcohol, helping implement new school safety protocols and even coaching middle and high school girls in soccer.

“I remember back in the day when the resource officer program was implemented,” he said. “The department was working with the Board of Education and the chief of police posted the job on the bulletin, but there was nobody applying.

“I started thinking — should I do it, shouldn’t I do it?” he said. “I had just graduated from the DARE program; teaching it at fifth grade level and really enjoyed doing that, but I really didn’t know if I could go to the high school and deal with those older rug-rats.”

As he thought more about it, the decision to apply became an obvious choice.

He was motivated by a cousin who had been involved in drugs and alcohol and lost part of his leg in an alcohol-related incident.

“I came to realize that if I could reach out to high school kids and let them know the dangers of what’s out there and help one or two or more, then that would be a great experience,” Officer Luis said. “I put in for the position and ended up getting it.

“It was the best move I ever made in my career — something I look back and don’t regret,” he said. “I enjoy coming to school every day and facing the different challenges — we have some good days and we have some bad days up here.”

He’s the first person to admit that the job has changed.

When he began as the SRO in 2001, the job entailed interacting with students and faculty every day, getting to know the kids on a personal level and spreading the message that “the police are here for you, we’re your friends.”

“It took some adjustment for the kids, faculty and parents to see an armed officer in school,” he said. “Now it’s second nature; nobody even thinks about it.”

Fast-forward 13 years, four principals and thousands of kids later and Officer Luis still remains a well-known figure in the halls of RHS, though his job encompasses a lot more.

Over the years, and especially last year after the Newtown incident, the most important thing has become the security of the buildings — that’s at the forefront today,” he said. “The technology has changed — there are a lot more cameras, and more are still coming — and that has altered our lockdown procedures and other protocol, which in turn has allowed us to implement some new programs that deal with safety in all of the schools.”

Before Jan. 2, Officer Luis was responsible for school safety at 11 different schools — the nine Ridgefield public schools as well as Ridgefield Academy and St. Mary’s.

He’s received some help though.

Officers Mark Giglio and Chris Daly have become additional school resource officers after completing national training last year.

The three officers now split the duties, with Officer Giglio covering East Ridge Middle School as well as Branchville, Veterans Park and Farmingville elementary schools, while Officer Daly is responsible for Scotts Ridge Middle School as well as Scotland, Barlow and Ridgebury elementary schools.

“I’m helping them out, giving them some guidance about things I’ve done over the past years,” Officer Luis said. “Now that they’re on board, it takes quite a workload off of me. I can continue being full-time up here at the high school and continue to assist with RA and St. Mary’s — it’s perfect.”

Despite the training and everything else associated with the increased demands on school security, Officer Luis still enjoys interacting with students and teachers the most — even if it requires him to pull out his handcuffs.

One of his career highlights is taking the high school’s law and justice class to the Bridgeport Correctional Center, a field trip he hopes to re-establish this spring.

“I’ve done so many different things here,” he said. “Between teaching the freshmen about drugs and alcohol and the negative consequences associated with them and then coaching the varsity girls soccer team, there’s been a lot of different interactions.

“One of the more memorable moments came back during former principal Jeff Jaslow’s first year [in 2005], when he was being announced over the loudspeaker as the school’s new principal,” he recalled. “It’s his first day on the job, and he’s giving his speech, and I’m in one of the classrooms wrestling a student who was resisting arrest and eventually ended up being taken away to the hospital.”

His work in the schools hasn’t gone unnoticed.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi said, “For quite a few years, Fernando has served as the student resource officer at Ridgefield High School and I believe his commitment to this community, and the younger generation in particular, is an asset that can’t be overlooked. I personally thank him for everything he’s done and his ongoing commitment to school safety.”

However, some of Officer Luis’s most memorable contributions, over his 17-year career, extend outside school walls.

After he coached varsity at the high school, he joined the Soccer Club of Ridgefield and coached a team of middle school girls that he eventually brought over to his native country of Portugal in August 2011.

The eighth grade team raised $17,000 for the trip, which included training and playing at the Sporting Clube de Portugal Academy — the European equivalent of Yankee Stadium.

“It was the first ever girls team from Ridgefield to go over to Europe,” he said. “The boys had done it in the past, but I felt that these girls deserved the opportunity, and they prepared a year and a half to make sure it happened, with bake sales, tag sales and car washes — they fund-raised all over town.

“We didn’t win any of the games we played. We ending up losing both friendlies, but it was still a great experience for them that they will cherish forever and always remember,” he said. “Now those girls are in 11th grade and they’re all grown up.”

His fellow officers tease him about playing kickball and eating lunch in the student cafeteria, but Officer Luis still serves the more traditional functions of a police officer.

“If there’s ever an incident up here involving a child or a group, then they call me right here at the school and try to get some information, and vice versa,” he said. “I reach out to them and tell them about what might be happening in town on a given Friday or weekend — a fight at Ballard Park or maybe a house party I’ve heard rumblings about; I can assist them and give them the information to prepare for that kind of stuff.”

In the summers, while the students and faculty are on vacation, he returns to patrol duty as a member of the department’s bike patrol unit — an initiative he spearheaded back in 2004-05, when budget cuts nixed his position in the schools.

On his bike, he patrols the downtown area from the fountain to the Recreation Center.

“The chief and I worked together to start the bike program and it’s been going strong for the last seven to eight years,” he said. “I’ve thought about going back to patrol, but the school called me back in 2005-06 and I returned.

“I really enjoy what I’m doing up here, and it’s been going great,” he said. “I’m going to stay here as long as I can and see where it takes me.”

He expressed interested in switching to the department’s youth or detective division, but he may be better suited for communications, if he ever decides to make a career change.

“This job has helped me deal with the public, because it requires interacting with 2,000 people on a daily basis — 1,800 students and 200 faculty members,” he said. “It’s a whole different aspect of police work.

“A normal patrol officer may interact with 20 people on a busy day — and that’s a lot,” he said. “Up here, it’s a mini community where you’re dealing with everything, except giving out traffic tickets on the road.”

Far from a normal patrolman, Officer Luis is making a name for himself not on the road but, instead, all over the community.

“It’s always something I’ve wanted to do,” he said.

Officer Fernando Luis will be honored during an award ceremony Tuesday, March 25, at the Leir Retreat Center at 6:30 sponsored by the newly chartered Ridgefield Exchange Club.

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