When Matt Joachims stopes to visit with Flandreau’s youngest students, it’s all hands in the air.
The school resource officer is sought for his high fives among the elementary children eating lunch each day. Everyone at a table will stop eating to get the treasured attention from the Flandreau police officer who spends his working days at school, reaching out to students to teach them safety, building trust and helping them see consequences of their decisions.
“I like being around the kids. I like to build that relationship. I want them to feel like they can trust me. I feel like that’s a huge part of law enforcement. A big part of being the SRO is building that trust,” he said.
Joachims, 31, started as the School Resource Officer last fall, replacing Lisa Pelton who moved to Pennington County. He has been with the Flandreau Police Department three years, his first job in law enforcement.
As the SRO, the school district pays 75 percent of his salary with the city of Flandreau picking up the rest. In the summer and when school is not in session, he works his police department job around town.
The school board and city council recently signed a contract for the SRO position and approved a job description, which wasn’t used in the past. Flandreau has had an SRO position since 2010, with the purpose of improving relationships between law enforcement and youth, said Police Chief Zach Weber.
Mayor Mark Bonrud said the time spent working with students pays off. “The relationship that you build with these students can carry on through their whole school.”
Joachims remembers wanting to be a policeman from the time he was a boy. After graduating from Graettinger High School in Iowa, he attended Iowa Lakes Community College for law enforcement and completed his certification at the police academy in Pierre. In June, he will attend training for school resource officers.
“It’s just something I always wanted to do,” he said of police work. “From a very young age, it was just something I wanted to get into.”
Joachims started a project this year to put emergency items in five gallon buckets, one for each of the school’s 120 classrooms and offices. Each bucket will have a medical kit, water, granola bars or fruit snacks and a garbage bag for contaminated items. The buckets can double as a toilet for rooms without restrooms in them.
“It’s essentially to try and get them by. It will take time if we have to clear the building after a lockdown situation,” he said.
His day starts with a check of the building to make sure all outside doors are locked. He also teaches fifth grade students a class called, “Empower,” which is similar to the former D.A.R.E. program. This course starts with how students can be good citizens and how to be honest and do the right thing. It also has lessons on alcohol, tobacco and drug use.
At homecoming, he had a program with high school students that used impaired driving goggles while they drove a pedal car on the school track. He will repeat the session before prom.
“You could talk all day but putting it in perspective of actually seeing what it’s like, essentially getting behind the wheel with the goggles on, I think that put it in perspective of what it’s really like,” he said.
While social media still is a problem because it can involve bullying, this year, the incidents of vaping or using e-cigarettes has jumped in high school and middle school, he said. He has presented classes to students on the dangers of vaping, which is illegal for anyone under 18 and is banned on school property because it falls under the tobacco policy. Despite that, the school has found vaping paraphernalia on students in school, he said.
The biggest issue this year has been the vaping,” he said.
He also plans to coordinate more drug dog visits to school, he said. The dog is handled by a different officer on the city police department.
School board member Darren Hamilton would like to see more frequent use of the dog. “Increased frequency might affect change,” he said. “I continue to hear from reliable sources that we need to pay more attention as a school.”
At the elementary level, his lessons have included Halloween safety, and this spring, he will do something on bicycle safety.
Principal Jay Swatek said Joachims is very welcome among the elementary students.
“They love him. They see him walk in, and they get double high fives, and they’re hugging him.
He interacts with them well,” Swatek said.
Not every day is easy as an SRO, however. Occasionally, he will have to leave school to go and find students who don’t show up for classes and try and convince them to come to school rather than be truant. It’s home visits that often are hardest.
“It almost breaks my heart seeing how some of the kids live,” he said.
Joachims and his wife, Abby, have sons, Tayte in first grade and Jett in preschool. Their third son is due to be born in a couple of weeks. She teaches science at Flandreau Indian School.
He is a member of the local South Dakota National Guard unit, transferring here from an Iowa National Guard unit and accumulating 15 years of service. He has been deployed twice, once to Kosovo and once to Afghanistan.
For now, Joachims is happy going to school each day.
“With having kids in the school district, it’s nice being here. I like being around the kids.”