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The small yet vocal group that wants to remove police officers from Madison’s high schools should get to know Zulma Franco.

So should critics of immigration.

Franco is not just a cop who walks the halls at East High School. She’s a strong role model and mentor. She’s open with students about her difficult yet inspiring life. She doesn’t target troubled students for citations and arrests. Her goal is to win them over, help them out and keep the peace.

Born in Colombia, Franco immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1980s. She was an 8-year-old girl traveling with her 16-year-old brother to reunite with their mother, who came to America ahead of them on a visa. Franco lived in a Latino neighborhood marked by poverty and gangs. At 13, she became pregnant. By 14, she was raising a child and left school.

“But I kept going with my education,” Franco said. “I think that’s what always brought me to: ‘I want to help people.’”

The native Spanish speaker learned English quickly, with help from friends. She studied at home, attended an alternative school for teen mothers, and eventually earned a GED diploma. She landed a job with a children’s hospital, talking to young people about preventing pregnancy and the dangers of HIV.

In 2000, Franco became a U.S. citizen. Six years later, she moved to Madison because her husband wanted to become a police officer here.

They both applied to the department, and she was accepted on a second try. She patrolled the South Side, then Downtown at night before becoming a school officer three years ago.

“I tell them, I get the chance to go to high school with them,” Franco said of students, “because this is the first time I’ve really stepped into a high school and known I belong there.”

An East High student had a baby and was going through turbulent times. Franco said her relationship with that student was difficult at first. The student got out of control, and Franco had to handcuff her.

But over time, they bonded, and the student now attends UW-Milwaukee.

“She texts all the time,” Franco said. “She wants to be a detective.”

Critics of stationing a single officer in each of Madison’s four large high schools claim they unfairly criminalize the behavior of minority students. But Franco, 40, estimates she’s written only a handful of citations this school year. And physical arrests at all four high schools have been falling, from 68 three years ago to 36 last year, according to the department. Moreover, 40 percent of citations that do not lead to arrests were for truancy.

Acting on a tip from a student who trusted her, Franco once disarmed another student with a loaded gun. But mostly her job involves relating to and helping young people.

“My role is to show that you should be integrated into our society and have a good relationship with police, because that’s what we are there for,” Franco said.

“Even though (students) may have preconceived notions about what a police officer is, I have changed that,” Franco continued. “They see me as their officer.”

So should we all, given the secure and friendly presence Madison’s school police officers provide.

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