By Gari Voss
Allegan Public Schools has reinstated School Resource Officers (SROs) after about 20 years. Through the work of the City of Allegan’s Police Chief Jay Gibson securing 5-year financial support from the Allegan School Board and Superintendent James Antoine, the Allegan City Council, plus Allegan, Cheshire, Trowbridge and Valley Townships, August 2022 found Officers Kris Meade and Matt Luyk, both 18-year veterans with the city police, wandering the halls of Allegan’s schools.
In preparation for their arrival, conversations addressed where the officers would be located. “We really did not want to be associated with the main offices,” explained Officer Meade. “The goal has been to have positive interactions so we needed to be where students hang out.”
“It is hard to believe it has only been two months with SROs as part of our staff,” reflected Assistant Principal Laura Feffer. “There were a few days recently that we were without them as they attended a conference. In their absence, I realized how truly impactful their work is and how often we rely on them for advice, assistance, and partnership during certain discipline issues. I find the phrase ‘game changer’ to be overused, but when it comes to the decision to make Officers Luyk and Meade a part of our school family – is it all too accurate.”
By shadowing Meade, this reporter found that the officers spend much of their time in the halls, cafeteria, and other areas where students congregate during passing minutes or lunch. In addition, when school staff need to respond to other requests, the SRO can monitor an area.
“Most of our time has been in the high school and middle school because the majority of school complaints have come from these campuses. We are not in the schools to take care of discipline issues, but we are available if situations arise that require our assistance,” shared Meade.
The primary goal of the SROs is to build relationships with students and assist in adjusting student perspectives of the police. For Meade and his counterpart Officer Luyk, an advantage may be that students have interacted with them in other environments around the community. With a son in middle school and daughter at the high school, Meade is already known through coaching baseball and other social activities.
“I believe much of the success of our SROs stems from the kind of people Officers Luyk and Meade are. Even during difficult situations, they treat students with dignity and respect – always striving to make each interaction one in which students learn something new or see things from a different perspective,” explained Vice-Principal Feffer.
Officer Meade feels that there are some signs that some stigmas associated with the police may be changing. Students have stopped to check in with the officers or ask for advice related to issues in and out of school. Those moments demonstrate some trust.
“When students approach us on issues, we are honest with them, whether they like the answer or not. The students expect the truth, or they stop trusting you,” stated Meade.
When students were asked about their feelings related to having an SRO in the school, the common response addressed feeling safer. In addition to the bad dad jokes the officers tell, the comments alluded to being “protected”.
From staff, the responses were similar. Whether the vice-principal, a teacher monitoring the lunch area or counselor, comments stressed a feeling of safety having the officers close if there is a problem. Because officers are getting to know students, the responses supported the belief that problems are being averted.
SROs do not move directly from their policing duties into a school. There is a series of trainings that assist in the transition from law enforcement to liaison officer. As part of the original plan, the SROs recently attended T.E.A.M. training with SROs from around Michigan.
Teaching, Educating, and Mentoring (T.E.A.M.) training focuses primarily on proactive efforts to promote safety while building responsible citizenship and positive character traits among students in grades K-12.
Officer Meade offered, “Officer Luyk and I now have a curriculum that is being updated. We can use lessons with students to focus on specific topics like bullying, social media scams, etc. Today, I will be visiting with students in kindergarten and first grade at West Ward. It will not be from the T.E.A.M. curriculum, but will begin the process of the students getting to know me and ask questions.”
The Allegan Public SROs will continue training and wandering the halls. As the school year progresses, the officers will keep a watchful eye for situations that need their presence and an open ear to students seeking assistance. The duo have a vested interested in the students, their mental health and their safety.
During a typical lunch, Officer Meade interacts with students. Samantha TerAvest, Ellie Bishop, Alyssa Macherzak, Bailey Meade and Lilliana Kelly take time away from a conversation with Meade for a photo op. These interactions are important in reducing negative stigma of police and building positive relationships that promote safety and well-being in the schools.