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Flanked by K9 ‘Partner,’ Menasha Alum and School Resource Officer Brings a Sense of Calm to Students

A Menasha alum and school resource officer has found a new way to maintain a sense of calm for elementary school students dealing with behavioral issues—and his work could have national implications.

Officer Jeff Jorgenson (’91) became the district’s SRO for its six elementary schools in 2013. Over the past three years, he has been accompanied by Geller, a facility dog that’s by his side as he works with students and makes his rounds on a daily basis.

Geller, a four-year-old Labrador cross, has been a complete game-changer in how Jorgenson works with students, especially those who may have behavioral issues, mental health challenges or difficult home environments.

“What she brings is a nonjudgmental, loving distraction to kids dealing with a crisis,” Jorgenson says. “Right away, I found that I could walk into a room in which a kid was really upset or angry, or even fearful that a police officer was there. But when Geller walked in the door, she would instantly bring a sense of calm to the situation.”

Together, Jorgenson and Geller have become well-known figures for students in grades 4K through five. Instead of being slightly fearful or nervous when a police officer is around, students now get excited with the two walk into a school.

Many teachers even allow their students to earn “points” in a variety of ways, such as by getting their homework done, helping out a teacher or taking part in independent reading. Once they reach a certain number of points, they get to take Geller for a walk around the school.

In a few instances, Menasha patrol officers responding to a students’ homes during the evening hours—sometimes due to a domestic violence situation—have been able to gain children’s trust by asking them if they’ve ever met Geller.  

The next day at school, Jorgenson is able to check in with the child.

Groundbreaking work

Jorgenson is the first SRO to serve Menasha’s elementary schools.

“If nothing is going on in terms of a crisis situation, I try to get to two different schools each day—one in the morning and another in the afternoon—just to put my face in the hallways and talk with the kids,” he says.

Shortly after he started in the role, Jorgenson realized the challenges of working with children who may be dealing with a variety of challenges. He is often called into schools to assist and help calm down students.

“I started to look outside the box and think, what am I doing when it’s working right? I whittled it down to being a calming presence and being nonjudgmental in situations in which there was an opportunity to de-escalate,” he says.

That’s when he started to look into getting a facility dog. Staff and volunteers from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) trained Geller, who has a working life of eight more years ahead of her.

Geller’s impact was almost immediate.

“It was almost too good to be true in some cases,” Jorgenson says. “All of a sudden, we were able to de-escalate situations at a pace that even the school could not believe.”

Jorgenson co-authored a comprehensive report on the use of K9 facility dogs to assist with crisis intervention, community relations, victim assistance and education.

“Like all good studies, it raises more questions than answers,” he says. “But one thing that was clear in the data was that, in a majority of cases, Geller was hugely successful.”

As part of the study, Jorgenson and school staff provided Fitbit devices to students to monitor their heart rates before, during and after a crisis situation. Some students, even when sitting in class, had heart rates comparable to that of an adult who had just run a marathon.

“No one could sit still and concentrate with a heart rate that high,” Jorgenson says. “That allowed us to take a moment and be a little more empathetic to what a child may be going through when they’re upset or angry. It’s no wonder they might have trouble functioning in a classroom when that’s happening.”

One of the functions on the Fitbit prompts the wearer to go through a breathing exercise when it senses the person’s heart rate is too high. For one student, who previously had been experiencing up to five behavioral issues per day, this function alone helped him manage his emotions. In the eight weeks in which he wore the device, he did not have a single incident.

In September, Jorgenson will speak at a conference in Seattle about his experience with Geller and the use of student Fitbits. He continues to receive inquiries from police departments nationwide to learn how to apply for a facility dog of their own.

“One of the things I’m most thankful for is to work in an environment in which people are willing to take a chance on a new idea and something that’s not yet proven,” he says. “We were able to unlock some really great things that can make life better for our schools and community.”

From an early age

After graduating from Menasha High School, Jorgenson received a bachelor’s degree from UW-Oshkosh. He then attended Fox Valley Technical College’s police academy and was hired by the Menasha Police Department in 1996.

Even while in high school, Jorgenson knew that he wanted to go into policing.

“I think I liked the idea of a different adventure every day and being able to help people in their time of need,” He says. “While the job has changed a lot through my career, we are still trying to protect vulnerable populations and do our best to make sure everyone is treated fairly and safely.”

Before becoming an SRO, Jorgenson was on the department’s Honor Guard, served on the SWAT team and was on bike patrol. He also was a crime prevention coordinator, working with neighborhood watch organizations.

He has some simple, yet important, advice for current students who would like to go into law enforcement.

“One of the things that has served me well in my work as a police officer is the practice of treating everyone with respect,” he says. “Especially in our schools, we need to be respectful of one another and refrain from negativity, even when it’s really difficult.”

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Photo of Officer Jorgenson and Gellar:

https://proprcopy.box.com/v/jorgenson-gellar