2017-05-07 / Insight

School officials say police presence makes a difference

BY NICHOLAS PUGLIESE
810-452-2601 • npugliese@mihomepaper.com


Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. Sergeant Matt Blair has been a mainstay in North Branch Schools since the Sheriff’s Dept. took over patrols of the North Branch area in 2015. Blair provides more than just a sense of security, as fourth-grader Chris Verkert (pictured) and other students have come to know Blair as a friend, mentor, counselor and more. 
Photo by Nicholas Pugliese Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. Sergeant Matt Blair has been a mainstay in North Branch Schools since the Sheriff’s Dept. took over patrols of the North Branch area in 2015. Blair provides more than just a sense of security, as fourth-grader Chris Verkert (pictured) and other students have come to know Blair as a friend, mentor, counselor and more. Photo by Nicholas Pugliese Many responsibilities come with putting on the badge of law enforcement at any level, but for police officers like Lapeer County Sheriff Dept. Sgt. Matt Blair and Imlay City Police Dept. (ICPD) School Resource Officer Joe DeLuca, patrolling Lapeer County schools brings added pressures -— and joys — to the job.

When the village of North Branch disbanded their police department in 2015, the Lapeer County Board of Commissioners contracted Blair along with Deputy Dan Kohler to take over patrols of the area.

Along with keeping the village of nearly 1,000 residents safe, the pair also regularly patrol the facilities of the North Branch School District, which houses over 3,000 students and staff.


Sgt. Blair takes a few moments to joke around with fifth-graders Regan Healy and Brendan Barkowska, at Ruth Fox Elementary in North Branch. 
Photo by NicholasPugliese Sgt. Blair takes a few moments to joke around with fifth-graders Regan Healy and Brendan Barkowska, at Ruth Fox Elementary in North Branch. Photo by NicholasPugliese “For the most part, that first year was growing pains for our side and the school side,” said Blair. “But having a presence (at the schools) did a lot to deter and cut down on the number of times called to the schools — we had results, so we kept it up.”

Now, the two officers Blair and Kohler split duties, with Blair monitoring the school district during the day and Kohler present at night. Though not technically a school liaison officer, Blair can be seen frequently around the school grounds during class time hours, maintaining what administrators in the district have come to see as a positive influence on both students and educators.

“For me, as their principal, there is not greater priority of the nearly 800 kids and 60 staff members than their safety,” said Ruth Fox Elementary and North Branch Middle School Principal Cindy Howe. “I know he is moments away if there is ever a situation where I need assistance — he is greatly valued here.”

Imlay City Schools also enjoys the presence of law enforcement in the hallways of their facilities in the form of School Liaison Officer Joe DeLuca, who has been a mainstay in the district for over 20 years. DeLuca, who has had stints teaching the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program and in 2004 was awarded the honor of “Friend of Youth” by the Imlay City Board of Education for his services to the district, provides Imlay City with the same reassuring presence that Blair does in North Branch.

“The ICPD is incredibly supportive of our schools,” said Imlay City Superintendent Stu Cameron. “Not only is he there for us in case of any type of emergency, but is frequently in the schools just to assure that the environment is safe for our students, and more so to connect with the student body in a positive way.”

While Blair and DeLuca perform typical law enforcement duties when needed, school administrators see arguably a greater benefit in the times in-between — the conversations with students, the calming presence and a positive example of a relationship between a community and law enforcement.

“A lot of times for kids, (Blair) is just a shoulder to lean on and someone to talk to,” said Ruth Fox Elementary and North Branch Middle School Dean of Students Bill Barkowska. “Some of the kids come from a pretty rough background and might not have had the best experiences with police in their lives, and having (Blair) here can really do a lot of good.”

Cameron echoed those sentiments regarding DeLuca, highlighting the positive effect the veteran officer has on the student body and faculty alike.

“Joe treats our students like they’re his own, and cares about them — their well-being and their success,” Cameron said. “He attends nearly all of our extra-curricular events; everything from football games, proms and Homecoming events to commencement and community-based events in our schools.”

The visibility Blair and DeLuca have in their respective districts provides students with an important relationship with law enforcement that they may not have had otherwise.

“(DeLuca) has taken it upon himself countless times to personally make sure that students and families are cared for,” said Cameron. “He goes well above and beyond what you would expect of a police officer, and that says a lot, as my experience with the ICPD is that all of them perform well above the call of duty.”

According to Blair, simply chatting with students about their interests can mean the difference between a good day and a bad one for the student.

“They ask about things like Tasers sometimes,” Blair said with a laugh. “But mostly it’s just common ground conversations and it lets kids know they can open up and that they have support.”

Administrators have noticed the benefits these simple interactions have had on their students, reducing potential disciplinary situations or mitigating potential problems.

“It’s really all about relationship-building,” said Barkowska. “(Blair) isn’t here to yell, he’s really a parttime cop and a parttime counselor.”

Simply being accessible and present for students and faculty, in bad times and good, provides an anchor with which both districts can rely.

Blair and DeLuca are both integral to their respective districts, but along with their service comes the added benefit to being connected to their departments as a whole, which can provide both Blair and DeLuca support or insight when it comes to dealing with family issues or any of a myriad other situations that can crop up during the day.

“Sometimes if we have an issue with a student, I might learn (from other officers) that their home life might not be the best and that provides context,” said Blair.

That information sharing goes both ways as well. According to Blair, sometimes there might be a case where a student might have been involved in an issue outside of school, but Blair can provide insight — like perfect attendance or high grades — that might indicate it was a “wrong place, wrong time” situation. Examples like these are further indicators that community policing, like that exhibited by both Blair and DeLuca, can provide context that might otherwise go unknown.

“Along those lines, the rest of the ICPD, including Chief Pike have always made themselves available to the schools, and are very protective of our students,” said Cameron. “It is not uncommon to see officers at our events, or posted outside the school drives making sure students get in and out of school safely - we have a great partnership with them.”

For his part, Blair credits the educators in North Branch schools for making the real difference in their students’ lives, deftly deflecting the credit those same educators gave to him. “I’m really just humbled to be a part of it,” he said. “But these teachers are the real difference-makers - they have the same look that you see typically with first-responders, the look that shows they really care about the job and their heart is in it.”

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