La Crosse Police Lt. Avrie Schott isn’t one to pat herself on the back for coaxing a suicidal person off the ledge, instead attributing the negotiating feat to teamwork between herself and the individual.
“I’m not there to judge or tell them what they should do or what they have to do,” said Schott, a negotiator for the La Crosse Police Department’s emergency-response team who recently persuaded a man to move away from the cliff he was threatening to leap from on Grandad Bluff.
“I’m there to listen. It’s a team effort to find out what has brought them to this point,” she said. “There has to be something we can do to have them walk away and feel better about themselves.”
If she won’t give herself an atta-girl, the Mental Health Coalition of the Greater La Crosse Area will, proclaiming her as the Outstanding CIT Officer at its May 11 Shining Star Award ceremony.
CIT stands for crisis intervention training, which the coalition sponsors and many police officers and sheriff’s deputies take to help them understand people involved in domestic disputes, potential suicides and other traumatic incidents. The CIT courses also have the support of the city and county, many law enforcement jurisdictions and the La Crosse Community Foundation.
Coalition President Patti Jo Severson said, “Lieutenant Schott exemplifies outstanding work done by officers in dealing with mental health crises encountered in their jobs.”
Also being honored at the coalition event from 5 to 6:30 p.m. May 11 in the Cargill Room of Riverside Center II will be Randolph Kjos of Hokah, Minn., whom the organization is naming its Shining Star for the year.
The 60-year-old Kjos, who is retired from his job as a counselor for the Wisconsin Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), is being honored for his volunteer work with homeless and disadvantaged people, and those recovering from substance abuse.
Aaron Rasch, who works for Independent Living Resources (ILR) in La Crosse and is last year’s Shining Star, nominated Kjos after becoming acquainted with him through his DVR work and volunteer efforts.
Kjos’ own struggles with homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues contribute to his effectiveness as a counselor, Rasch said.
“It’s a whole perfect storm of issues, and he’s the kind of a guy who really wants to make an impact,” Rasch said.
“He’s a blend who is a person you wouldn’t view as a poster child, but he really is,” Rasch said. “Showcasing him shows other people who ask what they can do. He’s turned a volunteer gig into something profound.”
Kjos noted, “A lot of the people I work with have been jailed or institutionalized, and they shy away from professionals.”
But they open up readily to someone who has been in their shoes, such as Kjos, a La Crosse native whose volunteer gigs include the La Crosse Homeless Coalition, the Franciscan Spirituality Center and the La Crosse Warming Center.
In Houston County, Minn., he helped start that area’s only chapter of Narcotics Anonymous, an issue he became familiar with after suffering severe injuries when a drunken driver hit him as they played a dangerous street game in 1986.
“I was playing chicken with a drunk driver,” said Kjos, who was on foot.
Both zigged when one should have zagged, and Kjos suffered life-threatening injuries, being hospitalized unconscious for two weeks and on life support for six weeks, he said.
“I was no angel back then,” he acknowledged, although he said he had his own business and was doing well.
He became addicted to the pain pills and was afflicted with post-traumatic stress syndrome because of the accident, sexual abuse as a child and other jolting experiences, he said.
“Every human being has mental health issues,” he said. “Everybody knows anger and depression. We all have this.”
Helping counteract such issues is a lifestyle of self care than includes being an avid outdoorsman, Kjos said.
He also follows a daily regimen to strengthen himself spiritually, physically, emotionally and intellectually on a daily basis, he said. His “attitude of gratitude” includes prayer and meditation in the morning, a walk in the woods, volunteering, and reading and journaling at night, he said.
Kjos employs Franciscan spirituality as well as Native American practices, including participation in Native American ceremonies.
“The Franciscan walk and the Native American walk are like the left foot and the right,” he said. “It’s not one or the other to maintain balance.”
Schott, a La Crosse native and graduate of Aquinas High School and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, attributes her own balance in part to her husband, Capt. Jeff Schott of the La Crosse Fire Department and their two young children, with a third on the way.
While couples in which both spouses are involved in law enforcement and/or firefighting fields sometimes have troubled marriages, Schott said that’s not the case in her household.
“It’s good because he gets me, and I get him,” she said. “If we have bad days, I can vent off of him, and he can vent off of me, because he gets it as a first responder.”
The self-effacing Schott deflects attention from herself and her own skills in defusing several dangerous incidents, saying of CIT, “Every law enforcement officer has it in them. That’s why everybody goes into it. We’re not here for the glory but to help people and help them succeed.”
Every call has the potential for trauma, she said, adding, “CIT helps you be a better officer. It helps you understand what they might be going through.”
Regarding people contemplating suicide, she said, “They feel so helpless and hopeless that they don’t see any other way. We try to help them see other options, because their lives are worthwhile. Every officer goes through that.”
Successful negotiations are particularly satisfying, Schott said.
“When they make that good choice — I didn’t talk somebody off of the bluff — they made the choice. When I can see that glimmer or spark in their eye, I know they will fight the situation and will go on,” she said.
Sometimes, they seek her out later to thank her, she said, tearing up and having trouble talking, overcome with emotion the memories evoked.
A former school resource officer at Lincoln Middle School in La Crosse, Schott delights in encounters with former students years later.
“To see the kiddos in college is fun,” she said, noting that many approach her and say, “Do you remember me?”
Of course she does, because that is where her heart is.
Asked about the effect of tainted reputations police may face because of controversial prisoner deaths and shootings in cities such as Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, S.C., Schott said, “It makes me thankful for the department I belong to and the community I belong to. We work as a community.
“I can’t think of any police officer who would hurt somebody that way,” she said. “If there is ever a problem, I think people feel free to approach us.”
As for the new Schott approaching in September, Avrie said she and Jeff have opted not to learn the sex in advance.
“There are too few surprises in life,” she said. “The kids are having fun with it, though. Our (7-year-old) boy doesn’t care if it’s a girl or boy, but our girl (who is 3) wants a girl and says if it’s not a girl, she wants to send it back.
“I tell her that’s not the way it works, that we take what God gives us,” Schott said.