Program aims to build trust between police and students

Heather Imhof with the Delaware State Police hands out Delaware State Police stickers to Allen Freer Elementary School students during State Troopers actively Reaching Students on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

CAMDEN — The little girl turned away as a uniformed Delaware State Police trooper approached Wednesday morning.

“She said she was afraid because police deal with bad guys and police get you in trouble,” Capt. Joshua Bushweller said.

“I responded with ‘You don’t have to be afraid.’”

A few minutes of pleasant conversation later, the policeman and child parted with a high five followed by a fist bump.

The transformation captured the essence of the pilot program “State Troopers actively Reaching Students” that debuted at Allen Frear Elementary School.

Gary Fournier with the Delaware State Police has lunch and talks with Allen Freer Elementary School students during State Troopers actively Reaching Students on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

During lunch time, seven jovial, smiling troopers mingled with the over 730 first- through fifth-graders as they ate, sitting at their tables while answering and asking questions from 10:40 a.m. to 1:10 p.m.

Police are intent on building trustworthy relationships with as many young students in the Caesar Rodney School District as the can — two troopers will visit each elementary once a month.

State Police plan to next expand the program into the Lake Forest School District and ultimately hope to see it stretch statewide.

“It’s an opportunity for us as Delaware State Police troopers to reach kids in a more relaxed environment than what we’re often seen in,” Capt. Bushweller said. “It allows themselves to see us in a different light and maybe form a more positive view and see that we’re people too.

“Hopefully they’ll think ‘Wow they are so nice’ and not be afraid to come up and talk.”

Early responses indicated that the troopers scored some major personality points with the second-graders.

Andrew Palese with the Delaware State Police talks to Allen Freer Elementary School students at lunch during State Troopers actively Reaching Students on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“I feel safe and happy because they’re nice police officers that like us and protect us,” Audrina Donnato said.

Added Lilly Foraker, “We’re grateful to have all these police to protect us here today. It’s like, amazing.”

A couple second-grade boys were succinct when asked to describe the visitors.

“Cool,” Cristian Bell said.

“Nice,” Parker Rynkowski said.

Troopers said students were curious about what they needed to do in school to join the police and asked about their badge, handcuffs and gun.

“I asked how many bad guys he had caught and he said hundreds and hundreds because he’d been a policeman for 21 years or something,” the Rynkowski youth said.

Thanks to their language immersion program, Rynkowski said students taught one trooper “how to speak a little Chinese.”

One young sports fan greeted Capt. Bushweller with an “E-A-G-L-E-S” cheer in apparent reference to the high-flying NFL team.

“They definitely seem engaged and excited,” Capt. Bushweller said.

There was no hesitation to take part when the State Police approached the district to take part in the program, according Frear Principal Julie Lavender.

“Our schools always welcome visitors from the community and in this case it might change the mindset some students have about who police are and what they do,” she said.

Young troopers benefit from experiencing the agency’s commitment to community-based service, Capt. Bushweller said. It’s a welcome break from what can be a high stress, confrontational occupation at times.

“We get some beneficial things out of this too thanks to the kids,” Capt. Bushweller said.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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