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Educators see positive change in students through CPD community policing

This past summer, the Columbia Police Department Community Outreach Unit expanded its strategic neighborhood count from three to four.

Officers Maria Phelps and Tony Parker began working in the Sylvan Lane and Quail Drive area in north Columbia in July. There are now eight officers working four neighborhoods. Three are in east Columbia and the fourth is in central Columbia.

With the additional neighborhood came an additional school, Blue Ridge Elementary. Community Outreach officers work almost daily in schools in high-crime neighborhoods to strengthen relationships with the students.

“You build the biggest influence with people when they’re young,” Parker said.

Blue Ridge has one of the highest numbers of students on free and reduced lunch in the district, and Parker said that many of the students he’s met lack role models in their lives.

“Everyone wants to show off their gold star but your father’s in jail, and your mother’s in jail too, who are you going to show that gold star to?” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do and you can see that when you come to the schools.”

It’s an extreme example but not uncommon at Blue Ridge. Parker and Phelps have been visiting almost daily since August. Third-grade teacher Nicole Reed, who’s been teaching in the district for six years, said when they first started, the children were nervous being around the officers.

“There was murmuring around the kids about who’s in trouble,” she said.

Blue Ridge Principal Kristen Palmer said it didn’t take long for the students to warm up to the officers.

“Now when they come in, the kids have huge smiles on their faces,” Palmer said. “They give them high fives,the kids are giving them lots of hugs.”

The effort exposes a softer side to police, but it’s not just about having fun. Parker said it goes deeper than that. Sometimes they’re part of the disciplinary process: sitting down some students and talking them through the consequences of their actions.

“I can tell that it kind of takes it to a different level for kids and they realize this is a really serious conversation that they’re having,” said Palmer. “It would be great to see that carry over into the neighborhood and beyond the school walls.”

Palmer said that as the students build relationships with the officers, they exhibit have good behavior for them because they don’t want to let the officers down.

“When they see them they’re standing up straighter, they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” she said. “If they walk into their class, they’re going to make sure they’re showing them that they’re being good students and doing their work.”

There’s also the added impact of that role model that some students may be missing: one that can reinforce what their teacher says in a meaningful way.

“Sometimes the things the teacher says is just what the teachers says but even if you have one or two more adults that can say, ‘it’s important to do your work’ or ‘it’s important to be kind to others,’ it’s just another voice in their heads directing them the right way,” said Reed.

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