VILLA PARK – In a closed community like Willowbrook High School, gossip spreads quickly. One of the stories currently circulating the school is that the new detective and police liaison officer is a trained mixed martial arts fighter
So when Sonia Soto dashed from her office to check on a small skirmish happening in the hall last week, she wasn't surprised to hear students whispering behind her, curious to see how she would handle the incident.
Soto has trained in martial arts and more recently has gotten involved in kickboxing, but the 32-year-old isn't an MMA fighter. She's a detective with the Villa Park Police Department who was recently assigned to the high school and is determined to keep the building and its students safe.
"I don't want anything happening to this school," she said. "This is my school, now."
She's the first female detective at the department and the first woman to be assigned to the school's liaison position.
At Willowbrook, she's responsible for securing the building and handling any incidents at the school, but she also has a hand in any police work involving juveniles outside of school. She attends the football games, will be working at the school dances and when the bell rings to signal passing periods, she ducks into the hallways to see the students.
"Any time the bell rings I like to go out and mingle with the kids," she said "I'm really happy here, the environment is amazing."
Soto has served with the department for five years, but said many people don't know her in town because she spent her first four years working the midnight shift.
Since she was a little girl growing up in Chicago's Brighton Park neighborhood, she wanted to be a police officer. At the time, the neighborhood was gang infested and officers from the Chicago Police Department would patrol the streets and talk to the neighborhood children.
"They'd stop and talk to us and I'd think, 'Oh my gosh, this is so cool. I want to be or to be the one caring for the juveniles,'" Soto said.
Her father and mother, immigrants from Mexico and Poland, worked long hours to support the family so she was often on her own. It was a police officer who became one of the strongest adult figures in her life.
"We had DARE in school and I became very close to our DARE officer," she said. "When I had problems, I ran to him."
She didn't know her liaison officer in high school so she always thought she wanted to be a DARE officer for the elementary students, until the position at Willowbrook became available and she decided to apply.
She's adamant about meeting as many students and possible and even keeps a jar of M&Ms on her desk to encourage people to come in to visit.
"I remember, my worst years were my teen years," she said. "If I can relate to them, I can help them."
Soto officially started her new position on Aug. 21, Willowbrook's first day of school, and during her first weeks at the school, she's already making plans for an even safer school. She wants to take a school resource officer training class that would require her to develop an advanced safety plan for the school, and she wants to run active shooter training with Willowbrook's faculty and staff.
It's a fast-paced job, but Soto said it's one she enjoys and hopes she can pull upon her own experiences to help the students.
"I know what it feels like not having a parent around," she said. "I know what it feels like to be pressured to make a decision. I'm kind of happy that I had the experiences that I had in my life because it makes me more understanding."