New Aspen High School officer is part cop, part counselor

As schools across the country debate whether school resource officers ought to be cops or counselors, Aspen High School students are set to get a mix of both when and if school begins this fall.

Cam Daniel, who has been a Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy for the past three years, has been named the high school’s new SRO, and he’s far from your average cop.

For three years before Daniel was a deputy, he was an addiction counselor at YouthZone and also spent five years working at Valley View Hospital’s Youth Recovery Center, an in-patient program that treats kids with substance abuse and mental health issues.

“I’m psyched,” Daniel said in a recent interview. “I think it’s super exciting because I can look at what’s been working and what hasn’t and build something new.”

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, who’s in charge of the Aspen Public Schools campus because it’s located in the county, also said he’s excited about the new arrangement.

“I think we really hit the jackpot this time,” he said. “He is the perfect combo we’ve been talking about — a trained counselor and a highly trained law enforcement officer.”

Putting police officers in schools in the United States is one of the law-enforcement roles that has come under scrutiny since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in May. DiSalvo himself questioned the practice in an Aspen Times story last month, wondering if perhaps counselors would be a better fit for Aspen schools.

Now he’s convinced the unique hybrid already on his payroll is the key.

“As they say, it’s better to be lucky than good,” DiSalvo said. “I think in this case we were very lucky for him to come along during this debate about cops in schools. I think it’s the perfect remedy.”

Daniel’s unique perspective begins with own high school years spent in Hayden when his family was running a ranch.

“I was that kid that walked the line of whether I was gonna make it or end up in the juvenile justice system,” he said. “I have friends who ended up dead or in prison and others who became doctors and lawyers.”

In addition, Daniel, 37, was there when school resource officers first began to show up in high schools across America after the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton.

“I was a sophomore when Columbine happened,” he said.

Daniel said he really liked the SRO who was posted at his high school during his junior and senior years. But he also saw how tortured the officer was when he was ordered by his superiors to arrest, for example, intoxicated kids at prom. “I saw him teary-eyed behind the school,” Daniel said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to arrest kids for doing the same things I did.’”

He said his approach to the job will be to provide a “buffer zone” to allow adolescents to make the inevitable mistakes kids make. Daniel said he understands the juvenile justice system and when intervention is necessary and when it’s not. “I want to be that gust of wind that blows them in the right direction,” he said. “I want to be a resource for kids and parents and the safety of the school. If I have to intervene, I will, but I’m there as a resource.”

Daniel said he’s particularly interested in helping troubled students.

“I’m not there for the kids that are all good,” he said. “I’m there for the ones on a rocky road that need some help. I really connect with kids that parents and teachers sometimes get frustrated with. I have a track record of working well with kids.”

When he was an addiction counselor with YouthZone, Daniel was up at Aspen High School frequently and participated in groups and restorative justice programs. He said he prefers to establish an relationships with kids that allows them to ask honest questions about drugs and other subjects that they perhaps can’t ask their parents.

“I feel like bad choices don’t make bad people,” he said. “People’s frustrations with at-risk youth are because they can’t always fix them. But not all need fixing. It’s part of their journey. Being able to have patience through this phase is something I’ve always had a thing with.”

Two former Black AHS students told The Times in June that they never felt comfortable approaching school resource officers for advice or with problems when they were students because of the fraught history between police and people of color. Daniel said he aims to change that, though he pointed out that few teens in general would go out of their way to build a relationship with a cop, and that it’s up to the officer to be the catalyst.

“Of course it breaks my heart to think that any person of color feels they can’t approach law enforcement because of the color of their skin,” he said. “Of course it concerns me. I want to fix that.”

He said he spent a couple weeks at the end of the recently Covid-truncated semester at Aspen High School going up to groups of kids and introducing himself and plans to continue that course of action when schools starts again.

Sarah Strassburger, who was recently named principal at Aspen High School after serving as assistant principal, said she worked with Daniel when he was a YouthZone counselor and was psyched when he began showing up again in the spring in preparation for his new job.

“I was thrilled to have him here at the high school,” she said. “He connects with kids, he’s personable, he’s approachable (and) he really works hard to create relationships with kids. He’s a real asset up here.”

Strassburger said she’s a supporter of law enforcement in the Aspen community and believes in their community-minded approach to policing. And if students need education on Daniel’s role or if students of color are uncomfortable with having an armed police officer in the school, she said she welcomes those conversations.

“I would hate to not have him here,” Strassburger said. “He brings a different experience, (particularly an) understanding of substance abuse and prevention, which is an area of concern in our community.”

The bottom line for Daniel is that every kid is different and in need of individualized levels of help.

“The best thing I can say about intervention with kids is that the minimal effective dose of intervention is the most appropriate,” he said. “Just arresting someone is not the goal.”

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