Cochise County deputy making difference as resource officer near border

Aug 28, 2021, 8:00 PM
(Cochise County Sheriff's Office - Mark J. Dannels Sheriff Facebook page)...
(Cochise County Sheriff's Office - Mark J. Dannels Sheriff Facebook page)
(Cochise County Sheriff's Office - Mark J. Dannels Sheriff Facebook page)

NACO, Ariz. (AP) — Cochise County sheriff’s Deputy Bobby Zavala is surrounded by a group of fifth-graders who are about to raise the American and Arizona flags on a metal pole in a tiny yard in front of Naco Elementary School.

Before the flags are hoisted, however, Zavala runs over to another group of 10-year-olds standing behind them in a perfect queue and turns on the cell phone one of the youngsters is holding. The national anthem blares from the device and now the flag-raising can begin.

Zavala, 53, in full sheriff’s deputy uniform, is the Naco school’s first school resource officer and the second Cochise County sheriff’s deputy to work as a school resource officer, the Herald-Review reported.

Raising the American flag and teaching children about its importance and how it should be respected is just one of the many duties he performs throughout the day at this unique place of learning about 700 yards (640 meters) from the U.S.-Mexico border.

“This is truly a blessing,” Zavala says about the experience he’s had so far at the elementary school. “I absolutely love it.”

School Superintendent Tim Mayclin said he tried for two years to get someone like Zavala to become the school’s first SRO. But there was never grant money available make it happen.

That changed about a year and a half ago when state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman visited the K-8 school and was struck by a poster created by first-graders during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Mayclin said.

“Our first-graders had put up something that they had a dream that we could get rid of all the guns and drugs and that really touched her,” Mayclin said. “When she went back (to Phoenix) after making a lot of rural visits, she saw there was a need for way more school resource officers out in the country. She went back and took some of their federal money and sent me an email telling me we could get one (an SRO).”

Mayclin began searching for an SRO, but was rebuffed at almost every turn because, “a lot of people weren’t interested.”

Then he heard about Zavala.

The veteran deputy said he received a call about the job at the Naco school while he was living in Phoenix with his family. Zavala said he had been a full-time deputy with Cochise County since 2010, but became a reserve in 2019 because he wanted to pursue a graduate degree. He and his wife and their 9-year-old son — the Zavalas have four grown children — had been in Phoenix for almost two years when the call came about the SRO position.

After discussing it with his spouse, Zavala, a Bisbee native, decided that returning to Cochise County was the best thing and what his family really wanted.

He became a full-time sheriff’s deputy again — a requirement to be an SRO — and started his new gig at the Naco school in mid-July.

The need for an SRO at the Naco school has a lot to do with its location and the area’s demographics, Mayclin said.

“Being on the border adds a different dimension to things,” he said. “We’re high poverty, we’re extremely rural. There are just a lot of intangible things, but being close to the border, I mean when I moved here it was just after a bunch of people had just gotten killed by the cartel. When we needed somebody to come here (a police officer) it was usually a couple of hours before we could get anybody if we had an incident.

“Anything I can do to to make our school better, to make our school safer and better for our kids and our staff that’s my emphasis.”

The fact that Zavala is a Bisbee native who is also bilingual improved the situation, Mayclin said.

“Someone coming here from Phoenix or Tucson just wouldn’t have the same understanding,” Mayclin said.

In his school office Zavala, with a ready grin, expanded on Mayclin’s comments regarding the need for a law enforcement officer at the elementary school level.

Aside from what Zavala called the “exterior benefits” of being at the Naco school, such as teaching the students civic responsibility and engagement through the flag-raising ceremony, there are underlying factors that are crucial, Zavala said.

”What is even more important is to teach these young children that law enforcement here in the United States is here to help, we’re here to protect, we’re here to serve,” he said. “We’re here to provide peace to these children who come from another country or another set of variables. They can come here, they can study at peace and be comfortable.

“The staff also needs to know that they can come and be comfortable that they can teach with ease and they don’t have to worry about violence.”

Before stepping into his office and after the flag-raising ceremony, Zavala stood in the breezeway at the school greeting numerous children with a “good morning” or the Spanish counterpart, “buenos dias.” He asked a few of the older youngsters if they were “OK” in both languages.

Most of the students have responded favorably to Zavala’s presence, as have many nearby Naco residents who have told Zavala that they feel safe that he’s at the school. Some of the older students though, have looked at Zavala askance, he said.

“I think it’s just the age groups,” Zavala says in a matter-of-fact tone. “They’re going from pre-teen to teen and they — especially the boys — like to think that they’re tough. We have some young ladies that are the same way.”

The issue presented by some of the older students — mainly some of the eighth-graders — has been the bullying of some of the younger children, Zavala said.

His day at the school normally begins at about 6:30 a.m. That’s when Zavala and Mayclin meet to discuss any expected issues. Then the SRO reaches for a cup of coffee — which he calls “paramount” — before he heads out and greets arriving teachers and some of the early-bird students. He also teaches a class in Arizona law to the upper grades that deals with drugs, bullying and weapons in order to prepare the youngsters once they get to high school.

“By the time they get to high school, they’ll be aware that they can’t be bringing drugs to school, they can’t bring weapons to school and they can’t be bullying,” Zavala says.

He says teaching the courses helps break the barriers with some of the less-trusting students.

“It’s a great time to bond with the children,” Zavala says. “Our classes are interactive. It’s not just a lecture. I want to learn from them because these young kids see more and know more than we think they do.”

A great majority of the youngsters who attend Naco school cross the border daily from Naco, Sonora, Zavala said.

On this particular Thursday morning, large groups of children — some with their parents, some without — are making their trek along Towner Avenue in Naco, Arizona, after they’ve walked through U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s port of entry.

Although the children are attending school in the U.S., the parents of some of these youngsters are not allowed to enter the country for whatever reason, Zavala said.

In the afternoon, after school lets out, Zavala sees to it that the same youngsters who crossed the border without an adult get accompanied by him to the port of entry.

Most days he must make the same trip five and six times, until all the children have gone home to Sonora.

“Hopefully their parents are waiting on the other side,” he says. “These are kids who are 5 and 6 years old. There are about 600 to 700 yards of street that they have to navigate before they get to the international border.”

The hope is that if anyone wants to harm one of the youngsters, they’ll think twice once they see that they’re accompanied by a cop, Zavala said.

“We’ve had no problems, but I would rather err on the side of caution,” he said.

The daily walks to the border, like teaching the classes on Arizona law, have created a bond between Zavala and some of the children he escorts.

“The kids are winding down at the end of the day,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot of names, I’ve learned about the families, I know where they’re coming from. They are sweet children. It’s nice to have that walk with them at the end of the day.”

For Mayclin, the addition of Zavala to the staff has been nothing but a win-win.

“It’s been really positive,” Mayclin said. “We’ve been able to use Officer Zavala to start some really positive relationships with the kids.

“The only time many of these kids see a law enforcement officer is when somebody has done something wrong or if something has happened to someone. Our goal is to change that a little bit. Zavala also makes teachers and community members feel safer because we have someone here. It’s really been a nice thing to add.”

Sheriff’s officials said Zavala’s position is being funded by a two-year grant.

Sheriff Mark Dannels said Zavala is a “great fit” for the position and represents the agency with “professionalism and pride.”

“Deputy Zavala has proven that he has the passion to wear the badge and will undoubtedly make a difference in our future generations through daily examples to the kids he has taken under his wing,” Dannels said.

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Cochise County deputy making difference as resource officer near border