Building a Culture of Trust and Respect: One Police Officer and One Child at a Time

April 14th, 2015

Assistant Principal Krista Venza and Officer Wayne

Assistant Principal Krista Venza and Officer Wayne Moreland

Today’s guest post comes from Krista Venza, assistant principal at a Pennsylvania middle school, and Wayne Moreland, a police officer. The two of them paired up to create the “Hello My Friend Project,” aimed at inspiring students — and teachers — to respect each other, to create a sense of community in their schools, and to reach outside of their schools to help those in need. You can find out more about the project on their website or their Facebook page.

Building a Culture of Trust and Respect: One Police Officer and One Child at a Time

By Wayne S.  Moreland, Police Officer and Krista M. Venza, Assistant Principal

When something negative is reported in the news, people tend to use generalizations such as, “All teachers . . .,” “All lawyers . . .,” “All police officers . . .,” and so on. Although there are some people in every field who can give the whole profession a bad name, most people are good and work very hard at their jobs. If we wait until a tragedy monopolizes the news and creates a culture of mistrust, we will miss the chance to build bridges between two institutions that share a vital role in every community: guiding children to become responsible and educated citizens.

As school and police leaders, we may seem an unlikely pair to join forces, but we realized we had a common desire to change perceptions and create a culture of trust and respect between schools and law enforcement. Wayne is a township police officer with eighteen years of experience in law enforcement, including the motorcycle patrol and training coordinator and team leader for a county SWAT team. Krista has eighteen years of experience in education as a special education teacher, instructional support facilitator, and school administrator.

Krista enrolled in a local citizen police academy, which helps the public learn about policing, Pennsylvania criminal law, and connections to the community. One of the key insights she gained was how quickly police officers must use their training, experience, and judgment to make decisions that can have lasting impacts on lives. The parallels to teaching are clear. Although educators do not normally have to make life-or-death decisions, they do need to react quickly and effectively to a number of different situations throughout the day that impact students’ lives.

Meanwhile, Wayne was searching for a way to show children a different side of law enforcement. He recalled an incident when he had volunteered to read to a local third-grade class. After the teacher introduced him, he was startled when a child walked up to him and asked if he was going to kill her. Wayne immediately knelt down beside the girl, placed his hand on her shoulder, and said, “Honey, I am here to read a book to you and your classmates. The police are here to help you, not hurt you.” But the moment stung.

After much discussion, we decided to supplement the work of the DARE program, in which police officers teach school students good decision-making skills, by creating a middle school program called PEACE Crew. The letters in PEACE represent the following:

P – Practicing self-control through

E – Exercise, discussion, and reflection of

A – Attitude and

C – Choices while always valuing

E – Each other

The after-school program is voluntary, and attendance fluctuates between five and twenty students each week. The structured sessions include focus and meditation activities, discussion of current topics, personal reflection, viewing of inspirational video clips, and physical exercise. Students are guided through a meditation session to help them to clear their minds and let go of any issues that may be distracting them. Topics discussed include bullying, friendship/relationship issues, academics, social media, and family dynamics. Students spend time writing about something that made them smile, something that made them upset, and something they learned that day. They then share these with the group. We model and practice active listening, showing empathy for others, and providing appropriate feedback during this time. We also feed them; usually we order a few pizzas and eat while we watch TED Talks, Kid President YouTube videos, and other video clips featuring inspirational people. The session is wrapped up by engaging in physical activity such as running sprints, stretching, working out in the weight room, or playing organized games.

The biggest surprise we’ve observed is that, when others see the positive interactions taking place within our crew, they are inspired and want to get involved. One of our mathematics teachers, who is also the high school football coach, volunteered to share a video clip of an NFL coach’s motivational speech to his players and then spoke frankly with students, encouraging them to be people with integrity who can be counted on. We have faculty members lined up to lead students in yoga and Zumba workouts, and we plan to invite other administrators, faculty members, and members of the community—such as business owners, judges, and police officers—to be guest speakers.

Another great outcome is how quickly we’ve gotten to know the students on a personal level. They have become comfortable talking openly with us and approaching us when they need support or someone to listen. Being available to them and making connections is so important when teaching them about trust and respect. As teen advocate Josh Shipp says, “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.”

The students have expressed interest in spending time volunteering at a nursing home, cooking a meal for their teachers, holding a coat drive, and helping clean the school. They have plans to become ambassadors of good in our school and encourage others to become responsible, caring individuals.

Their first outreach activity is holding a food drive to benefit our local food bank. Crew members will go to each homeroom and speak to their peers about the food drive and the competition they’ve developed to encourage participation. This will be the first opportunity for many of our members to try out a leadership role where their peers are looking to them for information and instruction. They are taking this new role very seriously, and we are providing them time to work together to decide what they will say and to practice delivering this message before having to do it for real. We are excited to help them see this project through and for them to experience something they planned successfully come to fruition.

These students have ideas about how to reach out to others in need, how to stop bullying, and how to simply be kind to one another, but some of them continue to say and do things that test our patience and question our will to continue giving of ourselves and our time. Still, we do continue—it takes a lot more than just creating a club and asking kids to show up to effect real change. Expectations and skills need to be strategically taught, especially those having to do with becoming a contributing member of a community that values a partnership between its citizens and law enforcement. These skills need to be modeled by everyone the students interact with, and the students need to be given the opportunity to practice the skills in a safe, supportive atmosphere.

How can we help make that happen? It simply comes down to caring and doing it. Lots of people have good ideas and good intentions; we’ve decided to jump in with two feet and all our hearts to make a difference. Our group is special because we are giving students opportunities they may not otherwise have, and people want to be a part of it. It is human nature to internalize what we experience, hear about, and read about, and to make it our personal reality. Our hope is that this program bridges the divide and that our reality becomes a culture of trust and respect among individuals, the community, and law enforcement.

This is all about people deciding to step up and create opportunities to make connections so our students—and, we hope, the entire community—know that someone cares about them and believes in them. In life, the stars don’t always align, and we don’t always hit every green light. It’s up to individuals to choose to make things happen, so why not an unlikely pair like a police officer and an assistant principal? Who’s with us?

Entry Filed under: Classroom practice,Leadership & Mentoring

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