Big man on campus: New Millington chief salutes kids

Millington Police Chief Jason Oliver hugs Lilith Denton, 5, a kindergartner at Kirk Elementary School in Millington, before Lilith entered school Wednesday morning. Oliver, appointed as the new police chief in the village in southern Tuscola County in February, has begun making daily visits to the school on weekdays, a practice applauded by parents and school employees. (Photo by John Cook)

As Millington’s new police chief, Jason Oliver has been out meeting people — little people, especially.

“The way I see it, the world has gone downhill in the last couple years in how the kids are seeing officers on TV, and I figured I want to change that,” said Oliver, 35, appointed in February as police chief in Millington, population 1,048, in southern Tuscola County.

“The best way to do it is start when they’re young,” Oliver said. “I go over to the high school and do some stuff there, but it’s not nearly as much as I do here, because I want to start when they’re young and that way, when they’re older, they’re more likely to trust me and talk to me when something’s going on.

“And a lot of younger kids don’t have the best upbringing, and some of them like to come talk to me.”

Unless he’s responding to a call or in a meeting, Oliver — named police chief in February to succeed Steve Roggentine — arrives each weekday morning before the start of class at Kirk Elementary School to greet students and chat with them.

He spends about an hour each morning at the school, spending part of the time saying hello to students on their way to the front door. On Thursday morning, Oliver stood outside in 22-degree weather, chilled further by a slight breeze.

“How are you?” Oliver asks Destiny Blakeley, a second-grade student, as she approaches the entrance.

“I’m doing great,” replies Destiny, daughter of Katelyn Birchmeier.

“Mornin’ boys!” the police chief declares to a group of boys walking toward the school at 8664 Dean Drive.

“What’s up, bud? Feelin’ better today?” Oliver asks another student making his way toward the front door.

While some pupils straggle toward the entrance, Lilith Denton, 5, a kindergartner, strides briskly toward the police chief, who lifts her and hugs her.

“Every single morning, he hugs her,” said Charli Moss, 27, Lilith’s mother, of Arbela Township. “Lily started it and he keeps hugging her. My Girl Scout troop made a thank-you card for him. I love him being up here.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jennifer Simmonds, 46, whose son, Kolt Simmonds, 6, attends Kirk Elementary School.

Oliver’s regular morning appearances at the school “makes the kids feel at ease and not afraid of police officers,” said Simmonds, of Genesee County’s Forest Township.

“I like the fact that he knows a lot of the kids’ names and talks to all the kids that come in,” Simmonds said. “He also notices different people that bring children in besides their parents or their grandparents. Like, this morning, he knew grandpa (Jerry Simmonds) didn’t have my son — it was me, and he knew there was a change.

“My brother-in-law picks Kolt up sometimes and the police chief said ‘Hi, who do you have today with you, Kolt?’ I like that he keeps an eye on who’s coming and going.”

Christian Beebe, a fifth-grade student, said he appreciates Oliver’s presence. 

“I really like it because I feel more protected,” said Beebe, after shaking Oliver’s hand on the way toward the school doors. “I feel like a lot less incidents are occurring when he’s out there.”

Oliver said his wife, Angela, developed the “Officer of the Week” program adopted by the school, which honors one student per grade, per week, who has demonstrated good behavior, responsibility and a willingness to go above and beyond expectations.

Each teacher nominates a student from that teacher’s classroom, with school secretaries Toni Narsted and Tracie Kean, and Principal Karen Moore, helping choose the recipient. The winner receives the right to wear a chain around his or her neck for a week, with a Millington patrolman’s badge attached to the chain.

Chief Oliver also brings the winner one free lunch during that week, with the chief sitting with the honored student in the lunchroom.

“McDonald’s, Subway or pizza is usually what I get them,” said Oliver, a 2000 graduate of Vassar High School.

Second-grader Zella Hascall, 8, daughter of James and Ashley Hascall, was “Officer of the Week” this week after her teacher, Ashleigh Bussinger, nominated her.

After making sure Zella received her chain and badge on Thursday morning, Oliver held a brief group discussion with second-graders in teacher Kim Willaker’s class, fielding questions from 25 pupils.

A boy asks if the chief has pursued criminals.

“I’ve chased many people around,” said Oliver, pausing before he adds: “Because I’m fast.”

“Have you ever caught a robber?” a girl asks. Oliver said he captured one while working as a police officer in Columbia, South Carolina.

“Did you ever send a kid to juvie?” a boy inquires.

“Yes — just because they get so many chances, and then after a while, that’s where they have to go,” Oliver answers.

“Where is it?” the boy counters.

“You don’t want to know where that’s at,” Oliver replies.

After the group chat, Oliver walks the school hallway back toward the office, urging one boy loitering alone in the hallway to find his room.

Oliver’s efforts at the school haven’t gone unnoticed around Millington.

Millington village President Gailan Reinert, at Monday’s village council meeting, said the new chief was recognized for his efforts at the March 6 meeting of the Millington Community Schools Board of Education.

“I swear that every Kirk (Elementary School) teacher was in attendance, standing up applauding his recognition award, so he’s doing good things at the school and they all like him,” Reinert said. “I thought I should bring that up.”

Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at gilchrist@tcadvertiser.com

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