Riverside Police Officer Dan Marrello gets acquainted with students in the lunchroom at Central School on Jan. 24, the day the Presence in Schools program rolled out.

Riverside police officers have begun to visit Riverside schools during lunch time to meet and talk to students in an informal environment in an effort to build relationships and to help ensure safety and improve student interactions with police.

The initiative, which the Riverside Police Department is calling the “Presence at School” program will consist of day-shift officers occasionally visiting schools in Riverside, including the four schools of Riverside Elementary School District 96 that are located in Riverside, St. Mars School, and Riverside-Brookfield High School, during lunch to chat with and get to know students.

The idea for the program came from Riverside Officer Michael Panek.

“It was his initiative, his idea and he just floated it up the chain of command to me,” said Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel. 

Panek said the goal of the program is to build relationships with students.

“By fostering relationships of trust and respect between students and the police, we can continue to build safer schools where our young people can learn and thrive — a vital effort that the Riverside Police Department will continue to advance with our partners at D96, St. Mary’s and D208,” Panek said in a press release issued by the Riverside Police Department.

A day-shift officer will visit a school on a day when the police have more than minimum staff on duty, Weitzel said. School visits might happen once or twice a month and last from between 30 and 60 minutes

“We can’t short our patrol shift,” Weitzel said. “On the days when we have more than minimal officers working patrol, we’ve set up a schedule with the schools.”

District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said police visits have to be approved in advance by the principals of District 96 schools. The visits will occur during lunch time so as not to interfere with any learning time.

“As police officers, we are all bound by a sacred trust to protect the well-being and safety of the children and staff at Riverside schools,” Weitzel said. “School safety walkthroughs and interaction with students can be a valuable tool in creating a positive school environment and keeping kids safe.” 

The visits began on Jan. 24 at Central School, and Weitzel said he received a number of appreciative telephone calls from parents on the day of the first lunchtime visit. 

“The same day that the officers were there, at 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon I was receiving calls saying, ‘Thank you, it was a great idea,'” Weitzel said.

Ryan-Toye said she was surprised the Riverside Police Department is calling the visits a formal program, but said that the district is happy to host occasional police visits as long as they are approved in advance.

“They have to get permission each time they come from our principal and I think there is some good relationship-building that can come of it,” Ryan-Toye said. “I wouldn’t describe it as a program, but certainly we look to continue to build relationships with our local police.”