Peterson: Helping mold youth into best they can be

The Walton Tribune named Sgt. Peterson an Unsung Hero In its 2024 Visions Magazine

For Loganville police school resource officer, Sgt. Dustin Peterson, the hallways of Loganville schools may be a far cry from the mean streets of New York City, but he’s still doing what he’s always done — protected the community, especially the children.

Peterson was a rookie cop with the New York Police Department on   Sept. 11, 2001 and one of his first duties after the attacks was to protect a high school in Brooklyn that was on lockdown.

“Without a doubt, the most important function I have is to protect these children at all costs. Working as a school resource officer, there is nothing more important than that. We are charged with protecting the most important and valuable asset and resource in our community — our children. I do believe our work in the LPD SRO unit is making a difference. I believe being a positive role model and giving these students my attention, especially at the elementary level, is laying the groundwork for positive relationships between the community and law enforcement to develop,” Peterson said. “I have worked in the schools long enough now that students I worked with when they were in elementary, middle and high school, now have children of their own in elementary school. It always makes me smile when the parents come up to me the first day of school and introduce me to their little one. They’ll introduce me and say, ‘This is Sergeant Peterson. He was my officer when I was in school. He’s your friend and he’s here to help you.’ I truly believe we are effecting positive change in the community by building these generational relationships. Seeing this happen first hand is incredibly rewarding to me.”

Lt. Joseph Cantrell, who until recently headed up the Loganville Police Department SRO program and under whose direction Peterson has worked for the last 18 years, can’t say enough about the contributions that Peterson has made to the program, especially at the elementary school level.

“That’s the biggest thing that I would say about his contributions now – his ability to work with younger elementary-age children. It is a lot more challenging than you would know. It is a special strength he has – that he can connect with them,” Cantrell said. “In all of the things I’ve ever done in law enforcement, working with the younger children is the most challenging. What he’s done is exceptional. He is amazing. Elementary school stuff is kind of new and it definitely seems to be his niche. You cannot put just anybody in that department and I wouldn’t have put in anybody else.”

Dr. Tammy Delk, BCES principal, agrees that having Peterson in the school has made a difference. Not only is it a benefit to have someone in law enforcement on the property from a safety point of view, but the biggest impact is that Peterson is able to show the police as a whole in a positive light.

“They know there is another adult in the building who will take care of them and who they can talk to,” Delk said. “Particularly our littles, pre-k to second grade, they love having lunch with him, love seeing him in the hallway, the fist bumps, checking out his superman shirt that is under his uniform. We see that they’re happy to be here, that they’re happy to see another adult who cares about them,” Delk said.

Peterson joined the Loganville Police Department in 2006 as one of the founding members of the LPD SRO Unit. He spent 16 years full time at Loganville High School and the last two years he has been full time at BCES.

“I have worked in the elementary schools for the entire 18 years, but was not assigned to the campuses full time. I taught our D.A.R.E. program at Loganville Elementary and Bay Creek when LES was in the city limits. I now teach our S.H.I.E.L.D. program at Bay Creek Elementary,” Peterson said. “The S.H.I.E.L.D. program (a character development one) was spearheaded by Lt. Cantrell and created by doing a research study of the Loganville area and surveying community stakeholders as to what they believed are the most challenging topics faced by the youth of our community.”

Cantrell said working with elementary school children sets the stage for the children as they grow older and develops trust that enables them to feel comfortable around law enforcement. He said he’s seen a tremendous difference in the reaction of the young students to police just in the couple of years that Peterson has been serving as the full-time SRO at BCES.

“A couple of years ago when I was at the elementary school some of the students were hesitant to come and speak to police officers. Some were actually frightened,” Cantell said. “Dustin has changed all that. Now they gravitate toward the officers and not away. I see a difference when I attend. They are waving when before they were intimidated. This is setting the stage for them to go into the middle school.”

Cantrell credits a lot of the change to a new program that Peterson has introduced at BCES that has him sharing his lunch times, day after day, with students. Peterson said the Police PAL (Partners at Lunch) program is unique as it is tied into the Walton County School Districts PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies) initiative.

“Students earn points for modeling good behavior. They can use those points in the school store to buy treats as rewards. One of the rewards the students can purchase is a ticket to eat lunch with me. During this time, we eat lunch together and talk. We play some games, get a popsicle, and then check out my office or patrol car,” Peterson said. “Since October 1st of this school year, I have eaten lunch with 567 students (yes, that’s 567 LOL). I have to keep a color coded spread sheet to keep up with the lunch dates and I stay booked out two weeks at a time.”

Peterson sometimes has three lunch sessions a day, each with several students, and has had to learn how to space out his lunch items to have just a little at each seating.

“He’s really pushed that to a limit,” Cantrell said. “It’s not easy to sit there for hours talking with the students. He will have three or four every single day and that’s not easy — to be able to sit there with some as young as 5 and 6. It is challenging. I’m very impressed.”

Peterson says that respect is a two-way street and credits much of his success to Cantrell for continually pushing him to come up with innovative ideas to reach the students.

“And also to LPD Chief Dick Lowry for his unwavering support of our ideas, regardless of how grandiose they may be,” Peterson said. Those ideas have received national recognition and Peterson is proud of the achievements of the whole unit.

“It is hard to say which I am the most proud of. Under Lt. Cantrell’s leadership, our unit was awarded the Model Agency Award by NASRO, meaning the way the unit operates and implements school based policing initiatives and programs is recognized as a blueprint other department can follow for a pattern of success. The SSAC recognized us in partnership with the Walton County School District for creating the Safe Campus Reward Program and a couple of years later for creating the Safe Campus Rewards App that was installed on the iPads of students at LHS. Since then, the app is now used district wide for students to anonymously report prohibited and dangerous items on campus,” Peterson said. “Those three awards were directly related to Lt. Cantrell’s vision and dedication to the safety and security of the WCSD students.”

Besides what he has done in the course of his duties, Peterson was also recognized by the National Association of School Resource Officers for going above and beyond when he solicited the help of the LHS principal to get the funding and arrange for repairs to a student’s wheelchair.

His work in the local school have afforded him the opportunity to share the hallways with family members from time to time. 

His wife, Jessica, is a teacher in the Walton County School System and his daughter, Scout, has at times been a student under his care when he was the SRO at the school she was attending. He is also well-known off campus as a musician with his band, Funky Bluester, which can often be seen performing at local events. 

But even that talent has been brought into his on-campus duties.

“For me, the band is a creative outlet that I’ve always needed to have. In my soul, I am a musician – I have to have that outlet,” Peterson said. “I have managed to keep the band and work separate up until a couple of years ago. Now, the teachers know I play guitar and frequently invite me to their classrooms to play for the kids.”

Peterson say he values his time from 1999 – 2002 working at the NYPD in Brooklyn, especially in the wake of the events of 9/11 and being involved in the rescue and recovery efforts, but says it seems like a life-time ago. 

However, he still has a strong connection to the city and the department.

“Many of the formative lessons I learned on the streets of Brooklyn still stick with me. I worked with some incredible cops, many of who I am still in touch with. My time there was an intense, wide-open, crime fighting whirlwind. I am proud to say I had that experience,” Peterson said.

But his law enforcement efforts now are concentrated on our local youth and helping mold them to becoming the very best they can be. And for those efforts, he has been chosen as one of this year’s Unsung Heroes. 

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