by Deonah Cendejas
photography by Gabriel De Alba
It is the middle of the night, and rain begins to accumulate on the University of La Verne’s barren sidewalks. The grass is damp, and the crisp air smells fresh. All seems quiet, calm and peaceful. Quiet nights like these at times set the canvas for the opposite. This is one such night. Conversation is heard from a distance; it grows louder and stronger. What first started as unintelligible sentences are now threatening and distinct shouts of aggression. Quickly, Laura Avalos arrives at the scene.
Serving and protecting
As the lead campus safety officer overseeing eight others, Laura ensures her fellow officers follow procedures and policies so students, faculty and visitors feel safe and secure. “There’s someone here to look out for them,” Laura says. “I would put my life at risk for the students. That’s what I’m all about. My duty is to protect others.”
Before becoming an officer, Laura started as a housekeeper for the University, earning $4.25 an hour. This was 15 years ago. Soon, she learned of an open position in the University Campus Safety Department. If she gained the job, she would be making $8.25, which was “marvelous pay” back then, she remembers, especially for a single mother looking to provide for her family. After her interview, John Lentz, then director of Campus Safety, explained she would have an answer within the next few weeks since he had more candidates to interview. “I started to walk out, but then I turned around and said, ‘I really need to know now and get an answer,’” Laura explains. “And that’s how I got in.” Laura does not consider herself to be an aggressive or tough individual but laughs and says, “That’s a question for my kids.” Her family is the driving force behind her life motivation. “They’re the reason why I get up every morning to go to work, and why I continued my education—so they wouldn’t get what I got growing up.” Her sternness landed her a job in Campus Safety at age 20. “I had to lie about my age to the students due to the fact I had to get respect back from them,” Laura says. “This experience made me push my attitude up.”
The Campus Safety Department she joined was a nine-member staff. The Department she leads today holds more campus power and presence. It is also busier, handling a multitude of calls. “It definitely isn’t what it used to be,” Laura says. “It varies from one boss to the other. My boss used to check whether we even had black socks on and made sure our uniforms were ironed. It has always been about what we can do for others, but now it’s more relaxed. We are still a staff of nine officers, 15 years later. The workload is harder since there’s no extra help.” Present day calls range from access to injuries, substance abuse to parking. “A call that stood out to me was a bomb threat in 2001 around the time when 9/11 happened,” Laura says. “Terrorist calls were happening, and I’m the one who received the call. It was traced to the pay phone across Circle K.” The individual making the call said the bomb was in the largest building. Founder’s Hall, Mainiero and LaFetra were then the largest buildings on campus and were all evacuated. No bomb was found. “We were in the middle of finals, so maybe someone wanted to get out of doing their final,” she surmises.
Laura holds the power to arrest, which she knows how to do properly without hurting an individual due to her extensive training and self-defense classes. However, Laura is concerned about being placed in a situation without carrying the right equipment. “We were given the ‘go’ about 18 months ago to carry handcuffs, pepper spray and a baton, but now we cannot use this equipment. From what I heard, carrying the equipment would make the students feel unsafe due to the police brutality happening in the media. They don’t want us to have that perception as Campus Safety officers.” Although specific details were never given to the Campus Safety officers as to exactly why, all Laura and her officers were told was that this switch in direction came from upper management. Nevertheless, Laura has a different mentality of how the uniform should be perceived. “When I’m in the uniform, all I’m looking for is the safety of others. A uniform shouldn’t reflect anger or aggressiveness; it should reflect safety.”
Parking and tickets have been a controversial issue at the University this year with the unavailability of parking spaces. “Giving tickets is a part of my job,” Laura says, “Just like they [students, faculty and staff] get a ticket, I would get a ticket if I parked illegally. The parking issue is a little frustrating because people don’t take the time to understand. They all believe it’s Campus Safety’s fault, instead of understanding that within [a few] months, it will be resolved with the parking structure. They only see the negative side, not the positive.” She is at the front lines of people desperate to park their cars. She recounts a story of being pushed around physically on campus by a student football player, late for his practice, simply because she told him he could not park in a specific area. This incident ignites her concern toward possessing proper defensive tools to protect officers and the La Verne community.
“I believe not just my position—but my officers as well—are not as appreciated as we should be,” Laura explains. “The University does not take the time to look closer and recognize the individuals who are here to serve and protect them. They believe we’re just here to unlock doors, and we’re not. We’re here to risk our lives for them.”
Laura’s safety and cultural mindset, learned through her on-the-job training, is respected and appreciated by her fellow Campus Safety officers. “She’s a fantastic employee and goes above and beyond expectations,” says Jeff Clark, director of Campus Safety. “She is endeared by the staff and students and knows every inch of the University. She’s been here longer than I, and I rely on her a lot.” Laura and Jeff are holding more personnel and special training for Campus Safety officers, including training for active shooting situations. On special occasions, such as Homecoming Weekend 2015, the Department was supplemented by 14 additional Securitas Security Services officers, bringing the total to 22 for the weekend event. “Homecoming is one of the biggest operational plans because of the planning and implementation of personnel,” Jeff says. “She follows up, and that’s why she’s out running around and getting everything done. Laura was key in setting up all of this.”
The University of La Verne is considered a safe campus and is ranked No. 13 in the top 50 universities for campus safety, according to Security Magazine, as of Nov. 1, 2014. “While La Verne is as safe as we can possibly make it, students can lose their awareness,” says Dr. Loretta Rahmani, dean of Student Affairs and Title IX coordinator at La Verne. “They should have safety first and a heightened awareness.” Loretta holds a sincere appreciation for Laura and the work she does. “Laura’s been here for a long time, and she is now the lead Campus Safety officer, and it is so well-deserved. She’s gone back to school to get her degree, and she really cares about the students.” Loretta compares Laura’s work performance to the Five Levels of Commitment cited by Terrance Roberts of the Little Rock Nine. He was one of the first African American students to attend school at Little Rock Central High School in 1957. His five levels include, ‘“I’ll think about it”; “I’ll try”; “I’ll do what I can”; “I’ll do what is required”; and “I’ll do whatever it takes.” Loretta says, “Laura is at that ‘I’ll do whatever it takes’ level for all whom she serves.”
Outside the uniform
Not only is Laura at the fifth level of commitment for the University community, she is also there for her family. “I have beautiful kids and a handsome husband. We are a very united family. We always have bonding time, from playing soccer to playing cards or watching a movie. It’s very important to me to make sure they go on the right path and continue that path. If for some reason they don’t, it’s my job to get them back on.” Laura is also a student in the University’s Campus Accelerated Program for Adults. Through CAPA, she is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in business. “While going to school and learning the different aspects of business, I have been encouraged by my friends and family to open up my own business,” she says with excitement in her voice. “My 9-year-old daughter, ‘little Laura,’ has a passion for doing hairstyles, so if I open a beauty salon business, I see it as a starting point for her, because everything I do is for my kids. Outside of the uniform, I am a loving mother. I consider myself a good wife and a good mom and a loyal friend. Everything I do is for my kids. I know I can do it.” And if her daughter grows up and wants to do something different? “We’ll just go in a different direction.”
Laura is an individual who has made an impact on her family, students and faculty. “People open up to me and tell me their stories because they know they can confide in me. I try to push people to be something more than what they are.” She has attained strong relationships with others. Esmeralda Escudero, now an alumna, asked her to be the maid-of-honor at her wedding. Laura happily accepted. Students confide in Laura when they have their best days, as well as their worst. “We had a student who was suicidal and refused to talk to anyone but me,” she says. “Why? I don’t know. But anything that anyone has told me, it’s between us.”
On patrol during Homecoming, Laura spots her daughter’s preschool teacher, who has a five-month old baby girl. Laura stops the cart in the middle of the University Quad, squeals, jumps out and continues to smile and laugh with the baby. “If you haven’t noticed,” Laura says, “I love kids.” Although her life has positively impacted others and has been filled with many happy moments, Laura also struggled personally. She met her husband Jose Avalos in 2002 through mutual friends, soon married and had children. Everything seemed seamless. However, in 2008, she and her husband were separated due to his legalization status. “They call it voluntary deportation, which kept him out of the United States for 21 months,” Laura explains. Jose was sent back to Mexico. “This made me become a single mom once again, but instead of with one kid, with three.” It was a tough time. “I got through it with the help of the University. I would go back to my office and find a gift card for Stater Bros., Costco or Food 4 Less, or a basket of food on my desk. For Christmas, the Human Resources Department made Christmas happen for me and other families who were struggling.” She put up a donation jar in the office, trying to make it through this trying time—but not for supplemental income or food for her own family. “The jar was for my mother-in-law,” Laura explains. “At the same time, in November of 2009, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The jar was for assistance for getting her surgery, medication and radiation. Checks kept coming in, which helped with the whole process. I got donations from people I didn’t even know. I even had students donate. We made it through the process with everyone’s assistance.”
Not only was her mother-in-law fighting breast cancer and her husband away, Laura’s third child was a three-month-old infant. She says her dedication as a mother kept her strong. “To get my husband back, I wrote Congresswoman Grace Napolitano about our situation, and thanks to that wonderful lady, three months later I received a letter that his case was approved, and he was ready to receive his visa.” Laura had a chance to personally thank the Congresswoman who was key in helping her husband come back from Mexico when she visited the University in 2012. Then, there were several attacks on politicians, and safety was of vital importance. “I was asked to be her personal body guard around campus, and I said, ‘Yes,’” Laura says. She begins to get teary-eyed. “I was willing to risk my life for someone who gave something back to me.”
Now, her husband is a legalized citizen, her mother-in-law is cancer-free, and the family is back together. “I couldn’t have done it without the University’s help, and the good heart of all the people I work with. We’re a Leo Family. We’re not just a number; we really are an individual.” All the help she received during this difficult time inspired her to give back. “When I have the opportunity to help someone, I do. And when they ask me how they can repay me, I tell them to help someone else and keep the chain going.”