Manchester Academic Charter School history teacher Dennis Henderson says just because he had a bad experience when he was falsely arrested by a Pittsburgh police officer last year, that doesn’t mean all African-Americans should be anxious or fearful of police. So when he became aware that more of his students felt that way, he looked for a remedy. The result could be seen May 22 in West Park on Pittsburgh’s North Side as Manchester students joined officers from Zone 1 for a trust-building exercise.
“I’m a teacher first, and all that other stuff has nothing to do with this,” he said. “This is about building rapport for kids that have anxiety or bias against officers. With some kids, their only interaction is seeing a family member arrested. This is about showing them something else.
It’s a fun a day out for all the kids, and for the officers.”
The activities began with about 90 kids from Manchester’s grades 5-8 joining 10 officers, who volunteered their time—having either just finished an overnight shift or who came in early for an afternoon shift—for a scavenger hunt.
Zone 1 Cmdr. Rashall Brackney said the kids broke up into groups and picked the officers they wanted on their teams–the bicycle officers were the first to go.
“They scattered all over the park. It was a blast,” she said. “They had to use the GPS system to find certain places, like monuments in the park, learn something and that would lead to the next clue, and so on. The first team back won—that’s where the bikes came in handy.”
Brackney said it was a nice respite from her usual duties, and went very well. As a former Manchester board member, Brackney was more than happy to help out.
“When Mr. Henderson approached us, we said this would be an amazing opportunity to engage youth in a positive manner, not in a moment of crisis or negativity,” she said. “I would love to see this expanded to other parts of the city and other schools. At first the kids were hesitant, but after the hunt, when the bomb squad guys showed up with the robots, they were engaged, curious, relaxed. When you have these opportunities for growth you can see some amazing things.”
Henderson said it’s a great step toward building trust. He thanked Venture Outdoors and State Rep. Jake Wheatley’s office for helping cover some of the expenses.
“Hopefully we’ll do more in the future to get them comfortable around law enforcement,” he said. “And maybe inspire some to go into policing, because we need more African-American officers to change the dynamic.”
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