By Matt Schepeler
When it comes to the issue of school security, times have certainly been interesting. Ever since the school shooting in Parkland Florida, the issue of student safety has not only been in the media but foremost in both police officers’ and school officials’ minds.
Not only do people feel ill at ease with existing security measures, school threats spiked locally and nationally after the shooting, and departments were spending more and more resources following up on them.
Police are obviously taking these threats seriously. One case in Whitmore Lake resulted in two teenagers, Michael Gage Perks, and Eric Gordon Deaton, being charged with making a false report of terrorism against a district, which it was forced to cancel classes.
As a result of all the problems, Columbia school officials and Columbia police have reached an agreement to put a liaison officer back in the district for the remainder of the school year.
“It is a win-win for us,” said district superintendent Dr. Pamela Campbell, noting that the benefits are manifold. “Officer Hudson (a previous liaison officer in the district) developed a really good relationship with a lot of students, and we felt there were some things we were able to nip in the bud,” she said.
Of course, hiring a police officer is not cheap, but both the township and district are pitching in. Columbia Police Chief David Elwell noted that there are 60 days remaining in the school year. “We [the township] are covering 10 of them,” he said, which comes to $2,025, while the district will pick up the $10,128 remaining on the tab.
Much like Dr. Campbell, Elwell believes there are many benefits to having an officer in the school. “There are a lot of advantages,” noted the chief, who stressed that the officer will be in all four district buildings at different times daily.
“It does a lot of things, but especially helps in building relationships with kids in schools. That helps build trust.”
Elwell chose Officer Josh Ritchey for the duty. A Ypsilanti native, Ritchey noted that he is already making headway in establishing relationships.
“At first a lot of kids asked ‘what are you doing here, who are you’” he noted. “Even at the elementary school, they questioned ‘What are you doing here?’”
The district sent out notices to parents letting them know about the program so they wouldn’t be alarmed when they saw Ritchey’s squad car parked in front of the building or when they dropped their children off for class.
“Now that I have been here a few days, more kids are coming up and talking as friends. That is what we want.”
Ritchey said that “Columbia Township is a big area with a small community feel. One good thing about this is that I am meeting a lot of kids and a lot of parents, but I am not meeting them in a negative police-contact atmosphere. I am meeting them in a friendlier atmosphere.”
“So, they get exposure to police in a positive way, they get comfortable around police and they realize we are just people too.”
As for the threats and possibility of a student considering harming fellow classmates, Ritchey said having a police presence definitely helps.
“I can’t say that they are never going to think about it. But I can say that every layer of security that you add is helpful. Every day you pull into the school and see the car here, you know I am here. Plus, I am very random as to where I will be located. I will never be in the same place at the same time.”
As for threats, Ritchey said students need to learn to be careful in this day and age of what they say or post online.
“We’re not here to get everybody in trouble. But if you do or say something that warrants police involvement, we are going to look into it.”