Teens Lead 40 School Officers in Youth Engagement Training

Forty Baltimore City Public School police officers are seated at tables in the library at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute first thing on a Monday morning in preparation of a Youth Engagement Training session. The mood is understandably heavy as tensions between officers and youth have been steadily rising in cities across the country, recently peaking in Baltimore as a result of the death of Freddie Gray. Five teens from The Inner Harbor Project stand in the front of the room with the hope of sparking meaningful discussions and paving the way to a new style of thinking that, if followed, will help alleviate the pressures felt by both officers and youth in the city. The Inner Harbor Project led its first Youth Engagement Training session in May 2015. A youth-led training created by the organization’s teens through extensive research on root issues, the goal of the program is to build mutual empathy and understanding between officers and youth. IHP Youth Leader Brionna Nicholson starts the discussion by asking each officer to introduce him/herself and state the travel destination they’d most like to visit – an exercise meant to ease the mood in the room and relax the participants before jumping into the session.

“This class is basically about communication and how to talk to people, how to get their attention, how to ease tension without getting aggressive and how to come to an understanding just by talking,” IHP Youth Leader Larry Alexander states.

IHP’s year of research before constructing this program concludes that improving communication is a key element to bridging the gap between teens and authority figures. The officers’ responses in the discussions are based on interactions they’ve had with teens both in their work and their personal lives, and the communication breakdown is evident as they share stories about the mistrust and fear in youth that stems from a misconception about the role officers play in society.

“If I had to go to a house to break up a fight between parents and a little kid saw me acting aggressively to do my job, there is a fear instilled in that kid and growing up they will automatically associate that with police,” an officer explains to shed light on the matter. “They had a negative experience when they were young and it turns into anger as they get older.”

As the discussion continues, officers share past interactions and are prompted to think about why teens don’t like cops. An officer in the back volunteers, “It’s a learned behavior. If parents say ‘don’t talk to cops’, then children will say ‘don’t talk to cops.’ That’s the uphill battle -- for us to try to get them to see that every cop is not bad. We know we got some bad cops, but every cop is not bad, just like every student is not bad.”

The second part of the training focuses on building empathy and leading with respect, but in the BPI library today it’s clear that empathy and respect are not immediately reciprocated. As the session continues, trust is built and officers begin to feel comfortable sharing more openly, and although the youth are leading the training based on a curriculum they developed, the open forum promotes two-way discussions on topics that offer insight and ultimately educate both parties.

“Ever since we’ve been doing these trainings, our outlook on the officers has changed. Instead of listening to what our peers say and what news networks say, we get their side of the story. Now that we’re building a relationship with these officers we know that they’re not evil. We know they could very well be our next door neighbor, the person driving next to us, or another person on the bus,” IHP Youth Executive Leader Adrian Hughes explains. “We know that the badge and the uniform does not make them a bad person.”

The final topic of discussion in today’s training includes a role-playing exercise in which the officers and teens act out real-life scenarios while utilizing what they learned earlier in the session. Some of the officers are hesitant to participate, seemingly unwilling to engage. Others, like Officer Betty Covington, volunteer and prove that the relationships being built today are meaningful and impactful, and that these relationships are what will help change the dynamic between officers and youth. Today’s session is IHP’s first to focus exclusively on school officers, and with summer coming to an end the timing is imperative to the success of the training.

“It’s vital,” Officer Covington of Digital Harbor High School says of the Youth Engagement Training. “We know what we need to work on because we are actually hearing it from the youth, and we’re working with the youth day in and day out in the schools.”

The dialogue shared in today’s training between officers and youth enlightens the room to the origins of the issues in our society, and Youth Engagement Training provides a place where moderators and attendees are free to openly share thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Each training is one step closer to IHP’s mission of being a model for social change by coming up with solutions to the core issues surrounding race, class, and culture that divide or society. Since the training sessions began just three months ago, 98% of officers have reported positive feedback and say that what they discussed in the session will have a huge impact on how they interact with youth in the future in order to avoid conflict and ease tension.