Telling kids that the police officer is their friend is a time-honored American tradition. Showing kids that policemen are their friends is less common in many communities.
The Edgartown School and the Edgartown police department have launched a new initiative designed to build long-term relationships between officers and 320 students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
“Yes, you can say it is a way of paying forward,” principal John Stevens said last week, following an after-school cooking class, featuring patrol officers David Rossi and Stephanie Immelt and a tableful of fourth through eighth graders.
The program was suggested by police chief Tony Bettencourt shortly after selectmen appointed him chief last spring.
“Tony called me and suggested a program that would embed officers in school life and curriculum. He said he’d see how the budget looked and get back to me. He followed up in late summer and said it was a go and we began working together two weeks ago,” Mr. Stevens said.
“It’s been terrific. The kids love having them here. David and Stephanie have spent the first two weeks orienting themselves to the school, meeting the kids and the staff, getting to know daily life in the building. This building has a lot of moving parts,” he said.
Involvement in the school community is one of two short-terms goals the new chief set as part of his department’s reorganization, Mr. Bettencourt said in a telephone interview recently.
“It’s similar to a program that increased our presence in the harbor last summer. We’re not going to either location because there’s an issue. There was a federally funded program in place several years ago that put police officers in schools. I just thought it was a good idea to get back in there,” he said. “It’s part of community policing, but it’s also good to have kids see cops as people in everyday life.”
Mr. Bettencourt said the school project is one of the community institutions that fit his department’s overall mission. “We want to avoid a one-dimensional perception of police officers, to establish that law enforcement is only one aspect of our community service responsibility. We want to broaden our community relationship, to be a resource for community groups and institutions,” he said.
Mr. Stevens is an Islander and a graduate of the Edgartown primary school with a long career in education. He sees the program as “innovative, a bridge to the schools in order to get to know kids better. “I spent 31 years in South Florida, and community policing here is much different, more focus here on conflict resolution rather than the court route,” he said.
Both the police chief and the principal said they want to dispel myths and stereotypes about police officers and police work, as popularized by cop shows on TV.
“The first day Stephanie and I were here, kids were asking us ‘who’s getting arrested?’ and ‘are we going to have a lockdown?’ Mr. Rossi recalled. “We’re hoping kids will see police in general as community helpers, not someone in a uniform with a gun who arrests people,” he said.
The program is not related to high-profile national education issues such as bullying, both Mr. Stevens and Mr. Bettencourt said. The school and the department each have anti-bullying training and protocols in place. “We have officers who have specialized training on issues such as bullying,” Mr. Bettencourt said.
The program provides for each officer to spend two days a week at the school. They are present when the first bus arrives and remain to participate in after-school programs until 5 p.m. Officers are on call for regular police work while on the school campus.
Mr. Stevens said a three-part effort has emerged from the nascent program. Officers will:
1.) Monitor bus safety, including traffic in and around campus drop off, pickup and pedestrians.
2.) Support safety within the school: class changes, fire safety drills, exracurricular activities such as sports and events where there are crowds of people around the school.
3.) Participate in the teaching curriculum, focusing on course material emphasizing safety, health, and community topics.
The officers say the immediate payoff is relationship building with potential long-term benefits.
“This is a proactive approach to establish good relationships with kids and families, so they can come to us with problems before something goes wrong,” Ms. Immelt said.
” I’m seeing a lot more parents having to work harder to make ends meet than when I was growing up. The schools offer lots of after-school programs like the cooking class you saw today. It’s just harder on kids when parents have to work a lot,” she said. “It’s neat, the kids like having us around. We go out at recess, laugh and play with them. They see us as real people. It’s working, ” she said.
Mr. Rossi’s three grown children attended the school. “I was here all the time then. I felt in tune with what was going on, but you kind of lose touch afterwards and it’s an important connection,” he said. “We want to make it comfortable for kids to talk to us. If we are aware of little things now maybe the big thing won’t happen later.”
The principal and the chief believe benefits are showing up. Mr. Bettencourt noted that as a result of officers riding school buses and interacting with drivers, a group of drivers came to a recent Island police chiefs’ meeting. “They decided themselves to come. It was welcome, and I see it as a direct result of this program,” he said.
“I hope to embed it going forward,” Mr. Stevens said. “It’s hard to measure how kids perceive police, maybe a survey would help, but we want kids to be comfortable going up to Stephanie or David in uniform on the street because they see a person, not a uniform,” he said.