BREWER – The moment Officer Roger Hershey darkened the doorway of Margo Barry Grant’s classroom during a recent visit to Capri Street School, he found himself waist-deep in wriggling, giggling kindergartners vying for his attention.
As Hershey settled in for what has become a series of regular appearances at the school, pupils filled the officer in on some of the highlights of their week and showed off their latest artwork.
After the initial clamor died down some, Hershey reached out to one of the room’s more reticent pupils, squatting beside the chair of a small, bespectacled, redheaded girl for a few moments of quiet conversation. “There are a few that kind of stand off to the side. I seek them out,” he later confided.
The day’s lessons centered on the letter G. Barry Grant’s pupils eventually left the classroom to watch the film “The Gingerbread Boy,” followed by a series of “clues” leading them back to their classroom where a cake in the shape of a gingerbread man awaited them.
“You can see the kids just adore him,” said Grant, as the children in the classroom crowded around Hershey.
Visits by Brewer police officers to the city’s elementary school classrooms have been a regular occurrence since September, when the police department initiated its Adopt-a-School program.
Hershey is among five officers participating in the program, which puts law enforcement officers into the city’s elementary and middle schools on a weekly basis. Others who are participating, comprising almost half of the city’s police force, are Cpl. Levi Sewall, Officer Keith Emery, Officer Peter Rancourt, who recently joined the Brewer police force from the Dover-Foxcroft Police Department, and Officer David Lord, a rookie just out of the training academy whose father served on the Brewer Police Department. A sixth officer reportedly is considering signing on.
Officers on board see their visits to schools as an antidote to some of the stressful aspects of their jobs. As Lord put it, “Unfortunately, we deal with all of the harmful things that adults do.”
Lord said his visits to Pendleton Street School, the one he adopted, are a bright spot in his day. Developing healthy relationships with youth could help make the actions police must take in times of crisis less traumatic for kids.
According to Police Chief Steven Barker, the idea is not only to serve as positive role models for youth, but to increase officers’ level of interaction in the local educational community. Under the program, participating police “adopt,” or select a school, and make a commitment to the children and staff at that school to interact frequently in a variety of ways.
Most visits occur during the officers’ off-duty hours. Sometimes, the officers drop in just to say hello, read a story, have lunch with children or join in playground games. At other times, they offer a helping hand to classroom teachers and serve as chaperones on field trips.
According to Barker, police officers here had little regular, ongoing interaction with pupils until grade five, when the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program is delivered. There are other events, like the Halloween safety program, the Police Athletic League program and Project Kid Care, which provides parents with identification booklets to be used in the event a child is missing.
According to Hershey, the Adopt-a-School program grew out of a visit to Capri Street School at the end of the last school year. After making identification kits as part of Kid Care, he and Sewall decided to take a break from their activities and join the youngsters for recess.
“It was a nice day and we happened to venture out into the playground,” Hershey recalled. The impromptu decision proved a hit with kids and prompted the officers to evaluate the effectiveness of what took place.
Capri Street School Principal Joe Gallant, also the school department’s curriculum coordinator, says the officers are a welcome presence in schools. When the police department’s familiar black and white cruisers roll into elementary school parking lots, swarms of kids come running. Police are no longer seen as stern authority figures but as another resource.
“It’s like a magnet,” Gallant said of Hershey’s police car. “This is what we need more of, this level of interaction.” Adopt-a-School provides regular interaction at all grade levels, he said, adding, “What these officers are doing on their own time is appreciated here.”
Hershey is quick to point out that the visits aren’t meant to draw attention from instructional activities planned by teachers.
“We don’t want to be a distraction,” said Hershey, who as the parent of a 4-year-old daughter is no stranger to the young set. “I go down the hall and wait for an invitation, which is never a problem here.”
At almost the midpoint of this school year, Hershey can expertly perform the “Tootie Ta” dance, a classroom favorite done to an upbeat children’s song of the same name. Some of the occupational hazards he has encountered have included accidentally sitting in a pile of glitter set out for a kindergarten art project and, in a variation of the cops-and-doughnuts theme, leaving Capri Street with his dark blue uniform bearing tiny hand prints of powdered sugar, the handiwork of a pupil having a doughnut for a snack.
“My experience has been nothing but good,” said Rancourt, who adopted Washington Street School.” One of his most memorable moments was “being invited to the jump rope session [at Washington Street] in full uniform, keys jingling, handcuffs swaying,” he recalled with a chuckle. “We held off on red-hot pepper,” he said of the speeded-up variation of a skip rope game.
Rancourt said the visits to school also provide for informal teaching moments. “We ask the kids to help with problem-solving. We get them talking,” said Rancourt. Topics have ranged from seat belt safety to strangers in school. “It’s important that children know why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
Lord said the positive interaction helps offset some of the damage done to officers’ ability to relate with kids when well-meaning parents threaten kids with a visit to the police station when they misbehave.
“They see us as people now, as friends,” Lord said, adding that the comfort level between cops and kids continues to grow as the program unfolds.
Barker said the program meshes well with the police department’s mission statement and organizational values, which encourage partnerships with the community in resolving problems and addressing local needs. It also, he noted, dovetails nicely with the basic principles embraced in the city’s Community of Caring program, namely caring, responsibility, respect, trust and family.
The officers’ unsuccessful attempts to find information on the Internet about similar programs elsewhere suggests that they might be breaking new ground.
“This isn’t a canned program,” Barker said. “This is completely home grown. This is how the Brewer schoolchildren want to interact with the police officers.”
“It costs no money,” added Hershey. “The only thing we have to contribute to this is our time.”