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Officers Steve Sturm (Orono), Brandon White (Minnetrista), Nate Hintz (Minnetrista) and Mike Wocken (Orono) helped out at WeCAN’s Ready-to-Learn school supply distribution Aug. 20. (Submitted photo)

Students at two Westonka schools will greet a new police officer this year as a changing of the guard brings in Nate Hintz of Minnetrista Police as the new School Resource Officer for Hilltop Primary and Mound Westonka High School.

Hintz will replace Brandon White in a routine cycling of resource officers at the schools, while his counterpart with Orono PD, Tim Sonnek, will continue to be a presence at Shirley Hills Primary and Grandview Middle School.

Hintz, who comes from Crystal, Minn., has been with Minnetrista PD as a patrol officer since 2007. He said he’s looking for something new in his role as School Resource Officer (SRO).

The SRO changes over every 3-5 years at the police chief’s discretion and is chosen based on officers’ interest in the role and a selection process. Westonka has worked with a resource officer since 2000, following the Columbine shooting that put schools across the nation on high alert.

Hintz will be on site “from the first bell to the last,” said Marty Fischer, assistant principal at Mound Westonka High School.

Foremost of the issues facing Westonka students, Hintz said, is vaping, and particularly vaping with added THC.

Vaping is not banned in Minnesota for those at least 18 years of age, but schools have long prohibited the use of e-cigarettes on their campuses and Mound is currently drafting its own city-wide policy for all tobacco use after rejecting Hennepin County’s move to age 21 for legal purchasing age.

Additionally, in March, state lawmakers added e-cigarettes to the list of items prohibited for use in any indoor public areas under the Indoor Clean Air Act, a provision that went into effect at the beginning of this month.

But while vaping itself is not illegal, the addition of THC to vaporizers is a distinction that quickly flips a recreation into a felony, Hintz explained. “And kids don’t realize that.”

Hintz said that he foresees the issue as one that will give him a challenge in part because vaping is so hard to detect: the cartridges are small, there is no cloud of smoke like with regular cigarettes and the scent lingering behind – if any – is fruity, sweet and short-lived.

It’s also an issue that disproportionately affects Westonka schools when compared with other suburbs in Hennepin County. Minnesota Student Survey data show that as many as one third of the district’s 11th graders reported using tobacco, compared to a 19 percent average for suburban Hennepin County. That number was largely driven by the district’s wide discrepancies in the use of chewing tobacco, e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco.

Fischer was candid in talking about the issue and said he and the schools weren’t trying to hide from it: “It’s here. It’s everywhere,” he said of vaping.

Superintendent Kevin Borg spoke to Mound city councilmembers about the topic Tuesday after Mayor Ray Salazar requested in an email to the city manager that the council hear from the schools ahead of discussion on the city’s tobacco ordinance in October.

As SRO, Hintz will work with school officials for problems on site. But he’ll also have a hand in mentoring students who run into problems off site, like cyber bullying or living with a difficult family situation.

Hintz said that part of the role was a large part of what impelled him to apply for the job, and it’s also the part of the role that Fischer said he’s taken on from day one.

“It’s a passion of his to build relations here with staff, with families and the kids,” said Fischer.

“The times I deal with high school kids is during traffic stops and they’ve done something wrong,” Hintz explained. He said he sees his new role as SRO as one in which he can connect with people in a more positive way.

“It’s always the bad story, never the good story,” Hintz said of what circulates about police in the news. “I don’t want them to see cops as nasty people. I’m not trying to drop the hammer.”

Already Hintz has donned a Dora the Explorer backpack and goofed off with kids during a school supply distribution hosted Aug. 20 by Western Communities Action Network (WeCAN).

“It was the busiest I’ve ever seen it,” Hintz said of this year’s Ready-to-Learn drive. Hintz estimated that he has been a part of the annual drive for three or four years already – or about as long as WeCAN has partnered with the Department for the program.

“It’s nice to have the kids and families see us in a different light,” Hintz said.

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