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Campus Supervisor Tim Wargo (left), Resource Officer Steve Paz, and Officer Joe Crawford spot student Brandon Lawtum-Grindle

Annual bench-press competition fosters trust between El Cajon Police Officers and at-risk teens.

By Gayle Early

March 25, 2009 (El Cajon)—Twenty-three Chaparral Continuation High School students flexed their muscles last week during a weight-lifting competition with members of the El Cajon Police Department in a show of strength and good will. Local TV stations trained cameras on the bench press, center stage, while a Channel 933 music van piped the jams, ratcheting up the already hyperkinetic energy of teens and classmates. The El Cajon Police Officers Association and Wal-Mart sponsored the event. Classmates, family, and friends poured onto the high school lawn at lunchtime to whoop, holler, and pump up the competitors.

“It brings out the best in them,” said a very buff Chaparral School Resource Officer Steve Paz, 39, who came up with the idea when he took his job at the school three years ago. “This is a continuation school, so it’s a little bit regimented, no sports activities, no dances, no extracurricular activity, so something like this gives them an opportunity.”

About a dozen on- and off-duty school cops, motorcycle cops, SWAT-team members, including team captain Lieutenant Jeff Davis; supervisors and officers from Paz’ own police division, including El Cajon Police Chief Pat Sprecco, kept score, competed, spotted weight lifters at the bench, or came to show support. Math students and teachers calculated stats, and the school’s art department had designed and silk-screened T-shirts for the event.

Women competitors (left to right: Sophia Acevedo, Gabrielle Kelly-Mazon, Brooke Sorenson, Kayla Pike, Victoria Thompson) wait their turn for the bench press

In the women’s round, Gabriella Kelly-Mazon squared off with Kayla Pike, after both pushed 95 pounds up to the bar. Kelly-Mazon then hoisted 105 pounds to take first place. Victoria Thompson also managed to press 95 pounds, a whopping 73% of her body weight. Thompson took second, since pound-for-pound she was the strongest of all the women competitors.

In the young men’s competition, Chris Jones and Bryant Johnson both maxed out at 245 pounds, although Jones eased into first place for having lifted 146% of his body weight, according to the student mathematicians.

The four winners received additional $25 gift cards from Wal-Mart. After the student rounds, the officers displayed what an extra decade or two of working out can do to muscle mass. Flexing chiseled biceps, Officer Paz effortlessly hoisted 315 pounds, after spotting several rounds of students.

Officer Jason Becker came to support the event on his own time
Student Echo Ibrahim, 16, with Officer Steve Paz, sporting T-shirts designed by Chaparral’s art department

Off-duty officer Jason Becker, weighing in at about 285 pounds and 6’5, benched 385 pounds. Robert Collins, Superintendent of Grossmont Union High School District, observed, “His arms are the size of my thighs.”

Principal Lucia Washburn said Chaparral, a feeder school for the Grossmont Union High School District, pulls its 350 students from all over East County—Spring Valley, Lemon Grove, El Cajon, Santee, Lakeside, and La Mesa.

Some students come for disciplinary issues, but “most students elect to come here because they got behind in credits, and they’re looking for a smaller environment, where they don’t get lost.”

“Because it’s so small they get lots of individual attention, and they start having success,” Washburn said.

Paz said that students have the option, after a successful year at “Chap’,” to return their home school. “The reality is, though, a lot of kids choose to stay here, because they like it. It’s a smaller environment, you get a little more focused attention from the teachers. You can expedite the credit process, and get on with it a little bit quicker,” Paz added.

Officer Paz is one of four members from the El Cajon Police Department contracted to work with the school.

Last year San Diego Chargers’ Darren Sproles, #43, handed out awards. Brandyn Dombrowski, the Chargers’ rookie guard from SDSU, was slated to appear this year, but was a no-show. Paz shook hands and awarded all the competitors gift certificates for Wal-Mart and Jamba Juice. Chaparral students happily volunteered to hurl Station 933 towels and T-shirts to the audience along with the jamming music.

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