When he was younger, Don Vlieger thought of becoming a minister. Although the sheriff's deputy is carrying a gun today, his current assignment allows him to engage in preaching of sorts.
As community liaison officer with the 22,000-student ABC Unified School District, Vlieger delivers a message against gangs.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound deputy with thinning blond hair can be found five days a week, eight hours a day, talking to students, teachers, administrators and parents about gangs.
He said he recently urged the mother of a gang member: "You must get a handle on your kid's life. If you don't you will be looking in the Yellow Pages for a mortuary. Gangs will kill your kid."
Vlieger insisted, however, that he is not trying to scare parents. "I just try and let them know how serious things are. It's a cancer eating away at our society."
A seven-year member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Vlieger, 30, was assigned to work full time in the ABC district this year. The contract with the district is a first for the Sheriff's Department.
"We have districts that contract for deputies to patrol their campuses at certain times but this is the first time a deputy has been hired to work full time on the campuses," said Lt. Robert Mirabella of the Lakewood sheriff's substation where Vlieger is regularly assigned.
Douglas Wolfe, who directs the district's anti-gang program, said ABC decided to hire a full-time deputy because serious gang problems in communities served by the district also were resulting in gang-related incidents in the schools.
From October through January, gang-related crimes in the four cities served by the district--Cerritos, Bellflower, Artesia and Hawaiian Gardens--included four attempted murders, three murders, 61 narcotics violations, 12 robberies and five fights involving rival gangs, according to statistics gathered by Vlieger.
The district has recorded 77 gang-related incidents, such as fighting between gang members, since the beginning of the school year, compared to 70 during the entire 1987-88 school year.
"We wanted to get ahead of the problem before things got out of control at the schools," Wolfe said. "His service does not take the place of the regular police service provided by the sheriff. He (Vlieger) is a supplement," Wolfe said.
The district pays about $59,000 for Vlieger's services and a squad car. Wolfe said the district is very pleased with Vlieger's work and the staff is recommending that he be rehired for the next school year.
A graduate of Bellflower High School in 1977, Vlieger completed two years at Long Beach City College majoring in general education and speech. He went to Calvary Chapel Bible School in San Bernardino County for 19 weeks, and thought of becoming a minister.
For no particular reason, Vlieger said, he gradually changed his mind about being a preacher and went into police work.
Vlieger worked as a patrolman. He said his experience with gangs was limited but he took a week-long course on gangs at the Sheriff's Academy in Whittier.
At elementary schools, Vlieger, known as "Deputy Don," wears his tan and green uniform. His .38-caliber revolver is strapped to his waist.
"The young kids still adore and respect policemen," said Vlieger, explaining why he wears the uniform.
When he is on the high school campuses or meeting with teachers and administrators, Vlieger carries his weapon beneath his green sheriff's jacket. "It's less intimidating," he said. "I'm easier to talk to."
Vlieger and district officials view his job as a combination of counseling and policing. He said he has made five arrests, including one on possession of marijuana, since school started in September. "I'm not out there (on campuses) looking to take kids to jail," he said.
Several months ago, Vlieger said, he took a sixth-grade boy to class in his patrol car. The boy, who had been skipping classes, decided to go to school regularly after he was picked up twice from his home in the patrol car and taken to school, Vlieger said.
"I feel proud of that. That's success." he said.
Vlieger is married to a deputy sheriff. His wife, Karen, 28, a patrol deputy at the Lakewood station, is on maternity leave with their 4-week-old son, John. The couple has a daughter, Kristiann, 3.