When a group of Clinton Police Department officers showed up at Sunset Avenue School in January, they got strange looks and even some tears. Now, they are welcomed with open arms as part of the school’s fifth grade class.
The weekly visits began as a pilot program to have police officers visit with students every Wednesday, speak with them and help them with anything they needed in an overall effort to give the youngsters a positive association with their local law enforcement.
“The school had a volunteer program where they would let parents come out,” said Clinton Police Chief Jay Tilley. “I thought what a great job for the Police Department to do. We’ve been coming out on Wednesdays and spending about an hour or an hour and a half interacting with the kids. It can be anything from reading to counseling, or something as simple as eating lunch with them. It just gives us some positive interaction with the kids.”
This past Wednesday, Tilley was joined by seven other Clinton Police Department representatives, including Lt. Timmy King, Lt. Chris Oates, Capt. Donald Edwards, Sgt. Jeff Gray, Sgt. Anthony Davis, Detective Kenneth Oates and Cpl. Dameon Parker.
As part of the program, the officers have a four-teacher team whose classes they visit, giving them ample opportunity to get to know the students in those classes. The officers help with math, science, language arts or any sort of instruction or projects that are going on at the time.
Upon arriving at the school, the officers immediately went to their classrooms, rotating every 10 or 15 minutes. At each of the officers’ assigned rooms, they were greeted with big smiles and wide-eyed looks of familiarity.
Instruction continued in some classes, whether it was Parker picking up a book and reading along in Christine Brewington’s class or King and Davis sitting at a table with students and helping them work through math problems in Amy Spell’s class.
“They get to see a police officer in a different light,” said Sunset principal Greg Dirks. “They’re not just some guy in a uniform, they’re parents as well, they can be mentors and just overall good people. That’s what we’re trying to show them. And (the officers) are learning right along with the kids.”
While Tilley spoke privately with a student who had been giving his teacher a few problems, talking about what the young boy enjoyed and wanted to do when he grows up, Lt. Chris Oates joked around with a few students who he has come to know well through the Wednesday visits.
Teachers Amanda Nell and Brooke Batson said it was a great sight to see.
“It’s been nice, because the kids can put a nice face to the police officers,” said Nell. “They’re not afraid of them. They come in and they help us out with anything we need help with.”
Batson said the officers have gotten to know not only the kids, but have been able to get a glimpse of what fifth grade is all about nowadays. “It’s changed a lot since they were fifth graders,” said Batson.
Those are true words, Tilley said.
“We’ve answered the age-old question, ‘Are you smarter than a fifth grader?’ Hands down, it’s no,” Tilley said with a laugh. “We all know that our favorite subject is still lunch. I think some things just don’t change.”
As much as they are there to help teachers out, maybe give them a brief rest or some assistance in whatever subject is being tackled, the officers like having a good time and being kids themselves.
“Out of our team, we have Officer (Chris) Oates, who comes in and he’s great. He sits there and chats and goofs off with the kids, which is kind of nice.”
“It’s nice because they’re developing a relationship,” she said, “a good relationship with the police officers.”
It also offers a certain feeling of security having police around on a regular basis, the teachers said.
“I feel more comfortable with them here,” said Batson. “And I know a lot of my students have said that it’s nice having them in here. I feel a little more comfortable. I feel more secure, especially after the shootings up in Connecticut — even coming back from that made them more at ease.”
The officers began showing up at the school just a few weeks after that tragedy.
“The first day we showed up, one of the little girls was petrified of us. She would break into tears when she saw the uniform because she had a really bad experience,” said Tilley. “After a couple weeks, we can’t get the little girl to be quiet. She loves us to death. She was somebody who was so scared of police she would run and hide but now considers us one of her friends. That’s a great success story.”
She has particularly taken to Tilley, saving him a seat at the lunch table when he visits. She is often the first one Tilley seeks out too. On this Wednesday, her class was on a field trip to the aquarium. Tilley said he would miss seeing her but was sure to see the little girl and the rest of the students next week.
The police chief said the reason officers were given assigned classrooms is so those bonds could be formed.
“Command officers have been given permanent classes, so we’re going to see the same students,” said Tilley. “When we first came here, everyone was staring at us and gawking. Now, we’re just part of the fifth grade class.”
As Tilley watched Oates and a couple other officers goof around with students as they worked on an art project he said it was evident the benefits were had all around. “We’ve had a blast in case you can’t tell,” said Tilley.
King said it is an enjoyable experience for the officers and students, and has only gotten better.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen is the kids are very responsive, very open and they love to show off in front of us and tout their skills,” said King. “That’s been a big plus. A couple classes I’ve been in they were doing projects and the teacher would actually stop and the kids would get up and present the projects to us when we went in there. I think that’s just a great thing — getting them to not be shy around law enforcement officers.”
“Now they’ll come up and hug us in the hallways when they see us,” said King.
The positive effect of the weekly visits has already extended outside the school too. When King has been off duty and out of uniform, he has bumped into students and their families in the community.
“They’ll come up and hug me and introduce me to their families. You can’t buy that kind of dedication and respect for officers,” said King. “We’re thrilled with it.”
Dirks said he is equally ecstatic with the success the program has had.
“It’s been a great relationship with the Police Department and Sunset where we’ve had a continuity between the community and school,” Dirks said. “It shows when, even outside of school, the kids are coming up (to officers) to say ‘hey how are you doing today?’ That’s what we were encouraging them to do.”
Tilley conceded he was not sure how, or if, the pilot program for the school visits would work. Now, the plan is to make the program a regular occurrence starting next school year. Dirks said he is all for it.
“It’s a really nice dynamic,” Dirks said. “They just can’t wait until they show up Wednesday. It’s been a good experience and we hope it continues.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.