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Officer overcomes his past, is giving back

Posted: August 18, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 18, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Steve McLean Steve McLean
Steve McLean

When Steve McLean graduated from Canyon High School with a dismal 1.8 grade point average — number 317 in a class of 337 — few believed he would amount to much.

A speech impediment identified in kindergarten put him on the special education path. Before he graduated from high school, he had been arrested twice by sheriff’s deputies.

His personal turning point came before graduation. One day, as a joke, he and his under-achieving high school buddies cut off a school bus in their 1963 Buick Riviera.

“We pulled in front of the school bus and stopped. We sat on the trunk of the car and stared at the bus driver. All the students were late getting to school,” he said.

But it wasn’t so funny when he and his buddies were hauled to the principal’s office, where a Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s deputy “dressed them down,” McLean said.

“That was the defining moment in my life,” he said. Deputy Art Pelino, who took an interest in him, convinced him to join a Sheriff’s Department Explorers program.

On Monday, the 57-year-old Canyon High graduate will take the oath of office as Santa Paula’s chief of police.

Value of education

McLean did well as a sheriff’s deputy, but his lack of education held him back, he says.

“Education is not about just getting a good job,” he said. “A lack of education hurts you deep down in your soul.”
“It is painful to feel that you’re dumber and stupider than everybody else — so I finally went back to school.”

At 41, McLean took classes at College of the Canyons. At 48, he received a university degree and, at 50, his masters.

He holds an Associate of Science in Administration of Justice from COC, a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Studies from California State University Long Beach and a Master of Science in Homeland Security from Tiffin University.

At 51, he was accepted into the FBI National Academy in Quantico, where he later graduated.

He did tough stints with the SWAT team and working the streets of East Los Angeles.

“That gave him real street cred,” said Santa Paula City Manager Jaime Fontes, who appointed McLean. “And that has had a very motivational effect on our police officers.

“He made the short list of applicants from across the country by virtue of his academic accomplishments and real-life experience,” said Fontes. “(Santa Paula officers) feel they have a real leader that they can get behind.”

After his appointment, McLean “walked into every business on Main Street and spent 15 minutes with each store owner — that was impressive,” Fontes said.

Giving back

A church-going married father of two, McLean tries to connect with people but especially with special ed students.

“All that pain went to make me who I am, and I used that as a motivator to work harder than anyone else,” he said.

All he needed, he said, was “that one person” who makes a difference. For him it was Deputy Pelino.

“There are few people who ever believed in me other than my family, (but) he is one,” McLean said.

Now McLean tries to reach out to special ed students and become “that one person” for them, the way Pelino did for him.

About six months ago he went back to Canyon High School, where teacher Bret Lieberman invited him to speak to his special education class.

“He just explained how it takes hard work and dedication to succeed and that sometimes you don’t get things right away, but not to be scared away of pursuing your dreams,” Lieberman said.

“Our students gave him a standing ovation,” he said. “I thought it was beyond inspirational for our students.”

Some of Lieberman’s students were in tears, said McLean’s wife, Kathy, who sat in on the talk that day.

“They get very emotional and excited when they hear him talk,” she said. “I believe they see a possibility. I believe they see a dream for themselves.”



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