He’s no average Joe

(This story was originally published on Nov. 15, 2008 in the Pioneer)

D.A.R.E. and liaison officer Joe Marshall is head of the class

By Lindsey Wahowiak

Pioneer Staff Writer

MORLEY — Deputy Joe Marshall will never forget it: He was called to a domestic assault one winter night. A man had spent the last of his family’s money at the bar and on marijuana, and came home — drunk and high — to beat his wife. 9-1-1 dispatchers sent Marshall and his partner to make the arrest. As Marshall was searching the home, he saw something that made his blood run cold.
Two children, wearing snowsuits, were huddled under a pile of blankets. Marshall recognized the older child: He had the student in a recent D.A.R.E. class. The child explained that their father was supposed to fix the home’s furnace with the money he spent on alcohol and drugs, so the kids stayed warm the only way they knew how.
It broke Marshall’s heart.
That’s why he shares that story with middle school students in D.A.R.E. and eighth-grade health classes.
“These kids are being the adults, trying to survive,” Marshall told Morley Stanwood Middle Schoolers on Wednesday. “It’s all about making good choices, even when other people don’t.”
When Marshall sees people making poor choices, especially at the expense of children, it makes him that much more emotionally invested in his job. He’s a father of two (with a third on the way this spring), but Mecosta County students are all “his kids,” to the point where his supervisors have cautioned him about becoming too involved.
“Joe’s doing very well,” Sheriff John Sonntag said. “(He’s shown) the law enforcement officer is not your enemy; he can be your friend or a mentor.”
As a Mecosta County Sheriff’s deputy and school liaison officer, Marshall sees plenty of adults and children making bad choices, but as the county’s D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer for the last five years (currently in Big Rapids and Morley Stanwood schools), he’s taught hundreds of kids to make better ones.
It’s not an easy task. Marshall has to walk the fine line between confidante and enforcer on a daily basis, for hundreds of kids. In the last few weeks, he’s seen an influx in kids bringing prescription pills into school — to sell, to use, to show off. There’s a steady stream of middle schoolers huffing because they don’t have access to other drugs.
“I’ve had problems with kids bringing in Vicodin at the high school and middle school levels,” he said. “And Oxycontin. They bring that to school, to sell or use it here. Medical marijuana — that’s next.”
When D.A.R.E. was taking off in the early 1990s in Mecosta County, Sonntag (the county’s first D.A.R.E. officer) said law enforcement officials hoped it would stop kids from experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Studies have shown that the program might not stop kids from trying drugs or alcohol, but it has delayed experimentation among local students from sixth grade (in the late 1980s) to eighth grade (today). The longer role models can delay kids’ use of drugs and alcohol, Sonntag said, the better chance students have of avoiding addiction and speeding recovery.
It doesn’t help that some parents are resistant to the D.A.R.E. program and police in general. Stereotypes about cops are so pervasive they show up in elementary school classrooms. “I remember you,” more than one first-grader has told Marshall. “You arrested my daddy.” Others talk flippantly about parents or other family members in jail.
It takes its toll on Marshall. It also motivates him.
“It’s discouraging,” he said. “The biggest stereotype is kids don’t like police officers. Their parents don’t. So I try to break the stereotype. I eat lunch with them, play basketball. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Marshall knows law enforcement officers aren’t always welcomed with open arms. He’s had parents who smoke marijuana pull their students from his D.A.R.E. class. Some have complained about the informational videos he shows in class being too graphic or too informational.
So he makes himself available to talk throughout the day. He plays basketball with seventh-graders at lunch, running the court in full uniform, plus a Morley Stanwood reversible jersey. He snacks in the cafeteria, finds some of the kids he sees more frequently and makes sure they’re staying out of trouble.
“He has a way of talking with kids,” marveled MSMS Principal Kim Colby. “He’s not their dad, not a friend, but he’s able to communicate with them and zero in on what’s helpful for that individual.
“Most important is the relationship he has with students, particularly in the D.A.R.E. group in sixth grade,” she continued. “He really wants the kids to see him as a helpful resource.”
Many do. Shane Platt and Andrew Groot, both MSMS seventh-graders, have had plenty of interaction with “Deputy Joe,” and they’re fond of him.
“Sometimes we play basketball with him, but he cheats,” Groot laughed. “He’s too tall!”
“He taught us about alcohol and drugs and weed and pot and all that,” Platt added. “But he’s a pretty normal guy. He’s awesome.”
Platt and Groot both said if their friends or family had problems with drugs or alcohol, they were confident Marshall would be able to help them.
“He’d probably try to find something so they wouldn’t be able to smoke,” Groot said.
Part of helping students, though, is making sure they can help themselves. Karen Bailey, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at St. Peter’s Lutheran School, said Marshall’s work with kids continually impresses her.
“His love for the kids is evident,” Bailey said. “He so wants to affect their lives. He teaches them to think ahead and have a response ready (if and when they are asked to use drugs or alcohol). He fits in wonderfully with what I’m hoping for my kids.”
Marshall’s use of true stories, both about drugs and alcohol and his job as a deputy, helps kids view him as a person, rather than just a police officer, Bailey said. Those stories can help shape the kids’ lives for the better.
Marshall remembered one student who came to class with a bad attitude and struggled to read. After talking with the boy, Marshall learned he was having problems at home and in school. They developed a rapport.
“We’d talk sometimes out of school,” Marshall said. “His family didn’t have money, and he had to deal with lots of stuff. I told him the trick was, you just have to make things better for yourself. He turned things around and even got a job to help his family with money.”
Those success stories are Marshall’s rewards for a job well done. He said he knows many cops couldn’t do what he does — after all, who would envy having to answer a cancer-stricken child’s question, “Does God still love me?,” or dozens of kids who have talked to him about their parents fighting — but sometimes what they don’t say can be even sadder. More than once, Marshall has met with school counselors to contact Child Protective Services for his students.
He tries to remind his students about that when he teaches about bullying and picking good friends.
“Some kids come to school with so much baggage, they have enough to deal with before they even get there,” he said. “I want you guys, when you get out of school, to do whatever you want to do. If you make bad choices, that takes away opportunities.
“If we make responsible choices with our friends, that’s something we don’t have to worry about.”

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