Retired Barry County Sheriff’s Department officers Tony Stein and Jeff Nieuwenhuis, are splitting up time ensuring the student safety as co-school resource officers this year.
“Having two resource officers allows us the flexibility to cover more ground,” said Thornapple Kellogg Superintendent Robert Blitchok. “Student safety is our top concern and this is another form of our commitment to our students and community.”
Stein and Nieuwenhuis rotate between the district’s six elementaries, middle school, high school and the Learning Center, housing special education staff and preschool, each day, serving staff and 3,156 total students. The positions are funded through the district.
Stein has been on staff for three years and is excited to have Nieuwenhuis on his team. “The best benefit to having two SROs is flexibility,” he said. “It’s a gift to be able to be in different buildings at different times, but also work together on student safety.”
Stein and Niewenhuis organize weather, fire, active shooter and lockdown drills throughout the school year. “We’re there to make sure that things run smoothly,” Nieuwenhuis said. “We’re a familiar presence that is beneficial to the entire school community.”
Since the secondary buildings begin the school day first, Stein and Niewenhuis are stationed at the middle and high school in the morning and at dismissal time, then they move to the elementary schools.
“Overall, students are happy to see us in the halls,” Nieuwenhuis said. “It’s really cool to see students having a positive relationship with law enforcement.”
Devoted to the Community
Both Stein and Nieuwenhuis had strong connections with Thornapple Kellogg far before they worked for the school.
For the last 16 years of Stein’s service with the Barry County Sheriff’s Office, he was assigned to the Middleville unit where he worked with the schools on a regular basis. But when he retired from Barry County, he wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Thornapple Kellogg. He approached then Superintendent Tom Enslen, about working for the schools as a resource officer.
Now in his third year in the position, his favorite part of the job will always be the students, Stein said.
“The best part of the job is being able to help out the students and interact with them in a different way every day.”
Nieuwenhuis is a graduate of Plainwell High School and the Kalamazoo Valley Community College where he earned his degree in criminal justice. He worked 24 years with the Sheriff’s Department and, for the last several years, specialized as a detective in criminal sexual conduct and homicide cases. He has 29 total years in law enforcement starting with Otsego Police Department in Allegan County, the city of Wayland and the village of Middleville before coming to the Barry County office in 1994.
He also served as a school liaison for Barry County where he was assigned to Lakewood, Maple Valley and Thornapple Kellogg schools. “I did that for three years and I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I enjoyed working here with the staff and I truly did enjoy the students at Thornapple. It’s a nice change of pace for sure.”
Though the transition from police force to school resource officer was something to get used to, Niewenhuis is excited to get back into schools. His wife is a teacher and daughter a Hope College student pursuing an education degree.
“Teaching is in our family,” he said. “I just really enjoyed it and thought this would be a nice career to step into after my career in law enforcement.”
In addition to safety exercises and ensuring general student safety, both Stein and Nieuwenhuis have taken on mentorship roles. “A couple teachers have given me the names of some students that they feel need a positive role model in their lives,” Nieuwenhuis said. “I make sure I touch base with those students at least once a week just to talk about what’s going on with them and offer advice.”
The mentorship program works to help students see law enforcement in a positive way instead of as a negative influence. “There’s one boy that I mentor that introduces me as his friend to his other friends,” Nieuwenhuis said. “Before, I was in investigations and corrections, but now my role has switched. I am more of a mentor and positive guy.”
Having this support system for students is very important to the community, Stein said. “(Community members) have been awesome and very thankful that Jeff and I are in the schools,” he said. “Whether it’s through personal contacts, people coming up to us and thanking us to posts on social media, things have been very nice.”