December 6, 2022 -- “At first, when they brought all the kids together, we saw the police, and I thought we were in trouble.”
Seventh grader Sirray Gray described his reaction as stunned when he saw Columbus Police Officers inside Johnson Park Middle School 11 weeks ago. He and his peers looked around in fear, wondering who was in trouble and if it was them.
While many teens had the same reaction, it’s not the one CPD wants them to have, which is why they’ve changed their Teen and Police Service Academy or TAPS.
In a program taking place in Columbus City Schools since 2014, officers spend 11-week sessions inside different schools districtwide, informing students about various topics and working to break down social barriers between teens and police.
“We’ve progressed the program since I’ve been here the last four years,” said program coordinator Jennifer Benson. “We started doing different things to allow for more creativity.”
Officers are now working harder to connect with the students where they are. Sessions within the program discuss career paths, making good decisions and even gun violence. Now officers are allowing students to reflect on what they learned in creative ways like making TikTok videos promoting positive behaviors which could combat gun violence.
“We do meet and greets with families, and there’s a parent TAPS night. We do teen panels and even parent panels,” Benson said. She explained that by connecting with families as a whole, officers can have authentic conversations that help break down community barriers.
Student Sirray Gray said he was nervous when he saw police officers at his school.
“I was just scared to be around police like that for the first time. I’ve had family members who’ve had interactions with police,” Gray said.
While it took time for him to open his mind, he experienced a change in attitude by the end of his 11-week session. “They are nice people who really care about you. I’m a lot closer to them, and I feel like I can start trusting police officers more, and they’re definitely not what I thought they were.”
Benson said officers now lead the TAPS program in three schools a semester instead of one school a semester as they previously did. She hopes the change in frequency will allow more students to open their minds as Gray did.
“I want them to make good decisions, think about things before they do it. I want them to succeed and transition them to the next step in their life and be productive adults,” Benson said.