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At a Northern Virginia high school, brotherhood and policing through soccer

T.C. Williams High School student Kevin Valencia sends the ball toward the goalie during an indoor soccer game in Alexandria. The program aims to help immigrant students and teens from low-income families.
T.C. Williams High School student Kevin Valencia sends the ball toward the goalie during an indoor soccer game in Alexandria. The program aims to help immigrant students and teens from low-income families. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The students were wary of the two new school resource officers.

Gary Argueta and Johnny Larios, each about a decade older than the teenagers who populate the halls of T.C. Williams High School in Northern Virginia, are Latino, like many of the recent immigrants who arrive at the school.

The teenagers “didn’t really know what to think about us,” Larios recalled.

It was a reticence the 29-year-old recognized from policing Chirilagua, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in Alexandria. There, residents’ fear of being questioned about their immigration status and experiences with corrupt law enforcement in other countries discourages contact with police, he said.

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Many adults Larios encounters as a police officer are already “dead set on their ways.” But he chose the profession to help steer people toward better choices. He figured working with teenagers, many of them from low-income families and new to the country, was one way. He just needed a path into their lives.

“What can we do to get these kids to see us more as friends, rather than cops?” Larios and Argueta asked themselves after arriving at T.C. Williams in the 2017-2018 school year.

The officers — members of the Alexandria police who are assigned to the high schoolsettled on a pastime they saw as universal and unifying: soccer.

They nurtured enough interest initially to field two teams, mostly with students in the school’s International Academy — a program designed for recent immigrants. They also launched an online fundraiser.

Many of the teenagers work to help support their families and juggle other adult responsibilities, putting the high school team out of reach, Larios said. Others don’t have the grades or may be too nervous to try out. The officers hold practice twice a week in a gym at a local church, but attendance is not mandatory, and all students are welcome.

The teams joined the Alexandria Soccer Association’s recreational league in December 2017. They play indoor soccer — known as futsal — in the winter and outdoor soccer in the spring and fall. Players quickly found success: Last year, one of the soccer teams was crowned first in its division.

During the first season, tensions between students eased, Larios recalled. Latino and Afghan students who hardly interacted, or disparaged the other’s culture over mishandled plays, began greeting one another with handshakes in the hallways at school.

The chasm between the officers and students also narrowed. Larios found himself listening to teenagers’ romantic troubles and recently accompanied a student to settle a traffic ticket in court.

“Soccer is kind of like the minimum of what we do with these kids . . . They are in our office,” Larios said. He paused and reconsidered.

“I make sure they have a pass,” he said, “but they are in our office all day.”

Johan Ferrufino, 17, who found his way to the team after his sister was killed in a shooting that left him injured, said the officers have helped him process his grief.

“I’m not nervous to cry in front of them because I know they’re really friends,” said Ferrufino, who grew up playing soccer in Honduras.

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The officers are a presence at the school, stopping to bump fists and chat with familiar faces as they walk the hallways. On a recent weekday, students circled the officers as they monitored the cafeteria from a quiet corner at lunch, recalling a match over the weekend.

During games, Larios and Argueta toe the sidelines, alternating between Spanish and English as they direct the teenagers.

A girls’ soccer team had operated for about five years when the boys’ teams were started, said Josefina Rodrigo, a social worker at the school and one of about a dozen adult volunteers from T.C. Williams, including teachers and the officers, who help manage the teams.

Rodrigo said the sport builds inroads to students she may not encounter at school, including some who pull her aside after matches to share issues they’re struggling through. It also introduces the students to Alexandria.

“They’ve really been able to build a community and a brotherhood,” she said. “It’s important for teenagers to feel a part of a community and feel a part of something.”

The officers feel a bond with the teens.

Larios, whose parents and sister emigrated from Mexico, witnessed family and friends from other countries struggle to access the same jobs and education as peers born in the United States.

“I’ve seen a lot of poverty within my people, and it’s a struggle to get ahead in life,” Larios said. “I was lucky enough to start from day one here, and a lot of these kids don’t have that.”

As a high school student, Argueta couldn’t afford the fees to join a selective travel team. He doesn’t want cost to deprive his players of opportunities and envisions the program evolving into a pipeline for college talent.

“You need money to play at a high level,” said the 28-year-old, who grew up in Charles County, Md., and became a school resource officer in hopes of deterring gang activity. “There are a lot of kids at our school who are talented at soccer. I just want them to have that same opportunity.”

In January, the officers drove the teens in a police van to a sporting goods store to purchase cleats with money from the Alexandria Police Foundation, which has also helped buy uniforms and equipment and pay registration fees.

Nahat Diaz, 19, said he wouldn’t be able to afford the jersey and Nikes with gold trim he sported at a recent Sunday futsal game without the program. Money he earns from a job at McDonald’s goes toward bills.

“I work, but the money that I get, I just need to help my mom,” he said.

Sometimes, he experiences depression or sadness, he said, overwhelmed by the cost of things he cannot afford or problems with girls. But he finds respite joking with teammates and in the laughter that washes over the field or the hard court.

“Soccer, what does that mean?” Diaz said. “That means love, to be honest.”

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