December 28, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry
A heated debate over protecting and educating kids in school dominated the final Orion Township board meeting of the year on Dec. 19.
Administrators from Lake Orion Community Schools, the Oakland County Sheriff's Department, board members and the public all made pointed comments during the event.
At issue was the school district's desire to expand the law enforcement presence and proactive education programming activities in all of its schools.
While everyone agreed this is a good idea, there certainly were mixed opinions on how it could be accomplished.
Assistant Superintendent Heidi Kast clearly stated the school district's desire to work with both the Oakland County Sheriff's Department and Lake Orion Police Department.
Conversely, Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard said his team of deputies could provide such support beyond the high school's police liaison officer.
He said there was no need for the township to grant limited police authority to village officers through a mutual aid agreement requested by the school district.
"We provide a variety of services to districts across the county," Bouchard said. "You just have to tell us what you need in Lake Orion."
Earlier this month, the township board approved an allotment from its general fund to pay for Oakland County Sheriff's Deputy Mick Simkinson to remain at the high school through Dec. 31, 2012.
"JoAnn and the board deserve a lot of credit for that," said Oakland County Undersheriff Mike McCabe.
The township's move came after an apparent stalemate emerged between the school district and sheriff's department over the funding of the school position.
Faced with budget constraints, the district decided earlier this year it could not afford the full-time Oakland County Sheriff police liaison officer and it began discussions with the county law enforcement officials .
Over the past few weeks, with the year winding down and the issue still not resolved, the district approached the village police for possible options – not only for the high school position but possibly other education activities.
During the township board meeting, Kast expressed her frustration with the Oakland County Sheriff's Department, saying the district had the right to negotiate with other agencies to provide similar services but at a reduced cost. She said later the Sheriff's Department had provided "no indication" it wanted to help the district before a meeting in early November.
According to Kast and Superintendent Marion Ginopolis, general parameters of how the village police and district may work together were put in writing, but no further discussions had taken place yet. This was confirmed by LOPD Chief Jerry Narsh. Kast said the mutual aid agreement between the township and village police was needed to take negotiations further.
At Monday's meeting, Bouchard said while he may not be able to provide additional full-time officers to the district at a reduced cost, his department would be able to provide reserve or part-time officers similar to what the Lake Orion Police Department could provide, plus additional services and programs.
This was welcome news according to school administrators and township board members.
Nevertheless, Kast was adamant that the district wanted to work with both law enforcement agencies moving forward. Her rationale focused on providing students, parents and staff as many resources as possible to help students make the right decisions and stay out of trouble.
The township board agreed and asked its attorney to continue working with all parties involved to finalize the mutual aid agreement.
A decision was made the next day to bring together all of the parties last Thursday, Dec. 22, to renew discussions on how the parties could work together.
Officials involved in the meeting did not divulge details, but Kast said the district changed its position afterwards and is not moving forward with requesting the mutual aid agreement. This keeps sole police authority in the district's schools with the Sheriff's Department.
However, both agencies will be working together on proactive education programming, Kast said.
For her part, Ginopolis said she was under the impression that a mutual aid agreement was needed for the LOPD officers to do anything in the schools, but the district's lawyers said last week that is not the case. With the existing county police liaison position saved at the high school thanks to the township's earlier move, there is no need to pursue the agreement, she added.
"We presented some things to the school district that it was not aware of," McCabe said. "Our deputies can perform all of the things the schools need, in addition to Mick's position."
Kast said it certainly would be beneficial to have more than one officer in the schools with arresting authority, as in the past when two police liaison officers were in the high school. But, she quickly pointed out arrests are rare.
Ginopolis said it was more important to increase the law enforcement presence at the schools, regardless of authority.
"Our mutually productive recent meeting is laying the groundwork for this to happen, using the services of both the village and sheriff's departments," she said.
School district, LOPD and Oakland County Sheriff's Department representatives will meet again later in January. Kast said the LOPD and Oakland County will provide a list of services currently available from them at the costs involved. The district is providing a summary of its district-wide anti-bullying program and list of needs by school to the police agencies.
Narsh said his officers look forward to working with the sheriff deputies at the education programming level.
"The bottom line is our kids will be safer," he said. "Anytime you put a bunch of cops in a building, it becomes safer.
"Working together, we'll help students navigate life and make good decisions in a difficult world," Narsh added, noting the programming also will include school staff and parents.